Monday, February 14, 2011

HOW CAN YOU TELL A COKED-UP MONGOOSE FROM TONY JAA?


Tony Jaa's the one with less fur. That's not a joke, that's actually the only comparison I can think of.

Here's a simple breakdown of the five dumbest fucking things you can do:

(5) Forget that Clint only fired five shots.
(4) Cross the streams
(3) Forget about Dre.
(2) Let Egyptian kids fuck around on Twitter (this Bud's for you, Hosni Ceausescu)
(1) Get Tony Jaa pissed off

It's a really, really bad idea to get Tony Jaa pissed off. Very large amounts of shit gets broke when Tony Jaa gets pissed off. Unlike a lot of his predecessors in martial arts cinema, Tony Jaa takes shit really fucking personally. Jet Li will assume the form of the ocean and through a weird blend of reification and Zen poetics end up leveling your shit like a natural disaster, but his emotions are always in check, because he becomes existence. Jackie Chan will flip through his Buster Keaton DVDs and use stunts and physical comedy to entertain you into submission. Bruce, however, would get pissed every now and then and fuck everybody in a five mile radius up, but with the exception of that one scene in The Big Boss where he knifes the henchmen to death at the ice factory, he was always in control, however fierce his style might be.

By contrast, Tony Jaa looks legitimately dangerous in his fight scenes. As in, there's probably more than one stunt dude somewhere in Thailand breathing really carefully and grumbling to himself that at least the check cleared and once these ribs heal up and my leg is reattached I'm going to get a surplus Soviet tank and go over to Tony's place. To his credit, though, Tony does a ton of insanely dangerous shit himself; he isn't asking the extras to do anything he wouldn't do. Only problem with that is, Tony Jaa is fucking crazy.

His entire life was based around learning martial arts so he could make really violent movies where he owned the fucking shit out of everyone in sight, and this ambition was realized with Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (released in the US as Ong-Bak: Thai Warrior). The opening scene sets the tone in an indirectly perfect way, featuring country boy Tony Jaa competing with a shitload of other dudes to see who can climb a tree the fastest; as they climb, they all try to throw each other off the tree, and by the end of the sequence, dudes are falling off the top of the fucking tree in uninterrupted takes and crunching on the ground.

Tony, being the star, wins, which means he gets to get ordained as a monk. Meanwhile, a bunch of sleazy city dudes are trying to buy the village's prized possession, a statue called Ong-Bak. The locals steadfastly refuse, which leads to the city guys chopping the head off the statue and scurrying back to Bangkok. The villagers send Tony Jaa to the big city with all the money they can collect, to go see his dickhead cousin Humlae (Petchtai Wongkamlao) to help him get the statue's head back.

When Tony Jaa arrives in Bangkok he finds that his dickhead cousin has befriended a teenage girl named Muay who holy shit is like the fucking Thai Carol Kane with that voice. When she's not talking she's pretty, but gaaaaaaaadDAMN do you want her to shut the fuck up once she gets started. Still, once you get used to it, her voice isn't that bad. Kinda like Carol Kane.

Humlae has developed a bunch of city ways—dying his hair, gambling excessively, running various short cons to pay off his debts—which lead inexorably to Tony Jaa wandering into an underground boxing club. The place is run by a bad guy in a wheelchair with a voicebox, who hangs out with a bunch of attentive and decorative girls and some other gangster who laughs a lot with whom Voicebox Guy gambles on the fights. The other gangster is thoroughly getting his ass handed to him by Voicebox Guy, until Tony Jaa accidentally volunteers to fight this big mean motherfucker, when all he's trying to do is get to the cashier to get his money—that Humlae stole to gamble on the fights—back. It looks perilous for Tony, until Tony just up and owns the fucking guy with one move.

Tony, pissed at Humlae but fond of the girl Muay, grumpily tries in vain to find the statue while Humlae keeps fucking up and getting bad guys pissed off at him and requiring Tony to do all kinds of awesome stunt work evading bad guys (one shot during a chase scene reveals some graf on the wall that says “Hey Speilberg, let do it together!” [all misspellings the movie's], which actually was a message from the director to Steven Spielberg suggesting that they make a movie, though the syntax is ambiguous enough Spielberg, had he seen the picture, might have thought someone was asking him to shtup).

Tony's quest for the statue leads back to Voicebox Guy's boxing club, where Tony has to fight a few more dudes. The first is a racist Australian guy, in a possible homage to the racist New Zealander Bruce Lee teaches the art of fighting without fighting in Enter the Dragon. Tony Jaa, however, teaches the Australian the art of fighting with fighting, beating the living fucking shit out of the guy.

Next up is a Japanese guy with a fro (the thumbs-his-nose-at-causality nerd in me couldn't help but think “Sushi K from Snow Crash really fuckin came down in the world since the future, man, damn . . .”) and really fast feet, with whom Tony has a highly entertaining fight.

Then, another goddamn white guy, who takes advantage of Tony's fatigue to almost win, before Tony just goes like “fuck this” and finally lays his ass out. After this, the crowd throws coins at Tony in recognition of his off-the-chain insanity and badassness, thoroughly pissing off Voicebox Guy, who's been betting against Tony the whole time, and delighting his giggly adversary, who makes out like a goddamn bandit.

The fighting stops for a couple minutes, to reveal that Voicebox Guy is annoyed with his underling who stole Ong-Bak's head and introduced the headache that is Tony Jaa into his midst. The underling, bristling at this rebuke, kills a hooker (who happens to be Muay's sister) by jamming a fistful of cocaine into her face. This leads to a wild tuk-tuk chase (a tuk-tuk apparently being the product of a wild night of sex between a golf cart, a rickshaw, and a Mini Cooper), at the end of which, Tony Jaa finds a cache of stolen Buddhas, and is exhorted by Voicebox Guy to go out way out in the sticks to the Burmese border to have a rope-fist fight against Voicebox Guy's henchman who shoots himself in the tits with steroids so he's invulnerable to pain. If Tony throws the fight he gets Ong-Bak back, as well as Muay and Humlae.

Tony throws the fight, but Voicebox Guy decides to be a fucking asshole—he is, after all, the bad guy—and Tony is forced to go out to this cave in the mountains and own a few dozen more bad guys and recover the head of Ong-Bak and rescue Muay. In the ensuing scramble, Humlae (who has been getting gradually less buffoonish and douche-y over the course of the picture) nobly sacrifices himself, and the severed head of a much-larger Buddha crushes Voicebox Guy to death. Humlae's last wish is that Tony Jaa put Muay through college and make sure she grows up right.

The chases and fight scenes are extremely well done and Tony Jaa is a staggering fucking badass in them. His moves, based on really old-school Muay Thai, are absolutely spectacular, with a startling amount of power for such a little guy (Tony claims to be 5'6” . . . I don't know, everyone else in this picture must be 6' plus if that's the case; not to generalize about SE Asia but I find that highly unlikely) and he has a couple positively terrifying finishing moves, one in particular where he wraps his legs around the dude's shoulders and chops him with superhuman ferocity in the fuckin head with the sides of both hands about eight times . . . that's just gotta hurt. Also Tony beats the fuck out of a guy with his legs literally on fire (the first take, Tony burned his eyebrows off because the fire got out of control, but insisted on doing a couple more takes).

Now, you might read through all that and go, “Holy shit, that movie sounds crazy.” You'd be absolutely right, too. It is totally fucking crazy. But it pales—pales, I say—in comparison to Ong-Bak 2: The Beginning.

The stories behind this movie are crazy enough: Tony, who was directing this time around, was rumored to have disappeared for a couple months midway through production. The juiciest rumor—started by the movie's producer, no less—was that he'd had a nervous breakdown and wandered into the jungle to randomly kick ass. Tony claimed that this wasn't true, but was vague about what exactly had happened. Either way, not the smoothest shoot.

I'm reluctant to write too much about Ong-Bak 2, because this Cracked article sums it up pretty much perfectly. Take a few minutes to read that and meet me on the other side of this picture of a typical scene.


Yeah, that's a picture of Tony Jaa ripping a motherfucker's larynx out with his fingers. He does that a few times.

Okay, the thing to keep in mind about that Cracked article is that it understates the case. Ong-Bak 2 is what would happen if you took a 10-12 year old boy who was into fantasy novels and martial arts movies and got him tripping his nuts off on a sugar high and gave him some crayons and told him to write a movie script. It has flashbacks less because they're necessary and more because Tony is like “oh yeah, right, and while all this shit was going on, this thing that happened a few years ago is what 'explains' what's going on.” After about an hour, you can kind of get a bead on what the fuck is going on, and then it's time for Tony to go have his final boss fight against the evil prince and a couple hundred ninjas.

Tony doesn't dwell on the backstory, which happens in no rational order, and is basically about how his 15th century nobleman father raised young Tony to be gay and sent him to dancing school, where he fucked up at being gay by falling for a girl. So then there's some intrigue or something and Tony gets kidnapped by a bad good guy, and then a good good guy re-kidnaps him before a bunch of dudes shoot the good good guy with arrows and Tony gets sold into slavery and then thrown into a muddy pit to wrestle a crocodile, whereupon a mysterious dude throws Tony a knife with which he dispatches the crocodile, and then the mysterious dude takes Tony off to the middle of nowhere and teaches him all kinds of ridiculously awesome martial arts and teaches him how to blow shit up. The movies shows that he's learned all this shit by jettisoning the kid actor who had been playing the lead character and plunking Tony Jaa down to have a succession of fights where he casually owns the master of each discipline. The chronology jumps around all over the place, and Tony gets his extremely bloody revenge against the slave traders who threw him into the crocodile pit as a kid, and liberates all their slaves. Then the fucking prince or whoever he is shows back up and starts acting like a dick and Tony kills a whole bunch of people and then infiltrates the palace, where the girl he'd been in love with as a little kid is there as the lead dancer. But, rather than have a big romantic reunion, Tony has to kill a couple hundred ninjas and then realize that the guy who taught him all the cool shit he knows actually killed his father, and they square off to have a boss fight but then the guy tells Tony to kill him to avenge his father's death, so Tony kills him and then fights a couple hundred more ninjas and kills the bad guy except he doesn't and Tony Jaa, improbably, is about to get owned when the camera cuts to black and basically fucking says, per the Cracked article, “Clap your hands if you believe in fairies and Tony Jaa will live.” No shit.

That's not even a spoiler, because you actually have to watch Ong-Bak 2 in its entirety to grasp how fucking weird that ending is, and the even weirder reality that that ending doesn't totally suck, in spite of how ridiculous it sounds. The thing is, the entire movie is just as ridiculous, and there really is no other way it could have ended, other than in some way you simply were not fucking expecting.

But narrative, shmarrative. Does Tony Jaa own motherfuckers in Ong-Bak 2? You're goddamn right Tony Jaa owns motherfuckers in Ong-Bak 2. The insanity of the fight scenes in the first Ong-Bak—oh, and by the way, to clear up any misunderstanding, there is literally no connection whatsoever between Ong-Bak and Ong-Bak 2 except Tony Jaa ownage and some vague Buddhist connections—pale in comparison (pale, I say, pale) to Ong-Bak 2. Tony Jaa kills people with fucking grenades in the fucking 15th century. Tony Jaa makes elephants bend to his will toward the beginning, and he has an elephant show up to help him fuck people up toward the end. (Tony likes elephants; there's a whole bunch of elephant-related awesomeness in The Protector as well; The Protector warrants a whole post of its own, which it'll get soon). And there is plenty of fighting that's just straight up hand-to-hand or with swords, and it's all amazing. What makes it all the more thrilling is the sneaking suspicion that Tony might have forgotten to give a fuck about safety regulations while filming, because seriously, some of that shit looks like some extras fucking bought it (and at least one of those elephants should have lawyered up before taking part in Tony's batshit stunt work).

It's almost a shame that he decided to make an Ong-Bak 3 where he tried to link the first two by implying that his character in the first was the reincarnation of his character from the second, because the sheer novelty of having a second movie that bore that little resemblance to the first would have been goddamn perfect. Oh, well.

It's tempting to conclude with something along the lines of “Tony Jaa immediately redefined the hierarchy of action gods with his arrival on the scene etc etc” except for the fact that he's so fucking crazy he's in his own category. This tiny elephant-obsessed anger-management issue having motherfucker cannot be compared to any other entity ever. He is simply Tony Jaa. All praise is due.