I doubt that Ong Bak 3 is going to find a welcoming audience, no matter how much I wish it would. The third entry in the trilogy that made Thai martial artist Tony Jaa famous—and then ultimately go crazy, quit filmmaking, and retreat to a monastery—is a very shaggy dog. It’s sweaty, murky, flashback-heavy, and is easily the most brutal of all the contemporary Thai martial arts films that have come to the U.S. thus far. But that’s what characterizes the Thai style of fighting films: inspired excess and decadence.
Most of Ong Bak 3’s spectacular shortcomings are forgivable because, to a large extent, the film is everything you came to see and then some. The film’s bizarre pleasures are cumulative: It’s initially migraine-inducing, but the more you watch of it, the more you can potentially get into an altered headspace where all of the grisly deaths, the pumice stone black caverns, the film’s violent holistic idea of medicine, the ubiquitous mini-temples that are all bursting with gnarled tree roots and skulls, and the serene Buddha statues lurking around every corner start to impress you while they actively horrify you. Let it never be said that Jaa, who had to co-direct and co-write Ong Bak 3 with filmmaker Panna Rittikrai (Born to Fight, The Bodyguard) because Jaa had an emotional breakdown and lost all of his money while making Ong Bak 2, needs to be totally in control to be totally impressive.
Ong Bak 3 begins at the end of Ong Bak 2 and initially looks a lot like The Passion of Tony Jaa: Tien (Jaa) is being beaten mercilessly by evil local tyrant Chernang (Sorapong Chatree), the king that murdered Tien’s family in front of his eyes in the previous film. Now, Chernang has finally captured Tien, who swore to take revenge in Ong Bak 2, and beaten Tien so badly that blood now soaks his hair and covers his face and body. Still, Chernang is not resting easily on his laurels: He fears the curse that has hung over his head ever since he poisoned the king before him, an evil that’s literally been looming over his shoulder since the last film in the form of the evil Tony Jaa doppelganger. Yes, you read that right: there are two Tony Jaas in the film, Tien and a nameless, black-toothed demon that looks just like Tien and embodies all of the darkness of Tien’s past. Now, thanks to the healing magic of Buddhist monk Master Bua (Nirut Sirichanya) and the support of Pim (Primorata Dejudom), Tien’s old childhood sweetheart, Tien has a chance at breaking away from his own past long enough to defeat his enemies.
The escalating grisly preposterousness of that top-heavy scenario wouldn’t work without Jaa’s herculean stage presence. When he pantomimes an elephant, arms stiff and thundering down on the ground like he were twice his actual size, smashing the windpipe of a heavy, you believe that even a tiny Thai man could have the impact of a giant pachyderm. He provides Ong Bak 3 with the total conviction and austerity it so desperately needs to remain consistently intriguing, albeit in a bewildering, nigh-impossible to quantify kind of way. The fact that Tien now fights with the support of a community makes Ong Bak 3 certainly thematically richer than Ong Bak 2: That film’s jaw-dropping solo dance scene is replaced here with a tender duet that emphasizes Jaa’s body over his dance partner’s, of course.
Popular comedian Petchtai Wongkamlao is similarly very good at popping up during all the wrong moments and almost manages to steal a few scenes away from Jaa. Nevertheless, Ong Bak 3 belongs to Jaa, and the terrifying freedom of watching him trample over everything and everyone in sight with his unique bone-crunching grace is its own reward. The film’s concluding fight features a great pond sequence that is one of the many reasons why patience is a virtue with this baffling third entry in what I maintain is the most paradoxically bewildering and satisfying contemporary action film you’re likely to see this year.