For those of you who own every Bruce Lee related movie ever made (34), and have worn the cover of the tender, gripping biography his wife Linda Emery wrote (Bruce Lee: The man I only Knew) on which the thought-provoking, touching film "Dragon: the Bruce Lee Story" was based, then you and I should really hang out. Moreover, you've been agonizing over the absence of any great front men in the genre. Upon seeing Ong Bak 2, I realized that Kung Fu fans everywhere might be in luck.
Enter: Tony Jaa. Tony Jaa lacks the signature attitude of Bruce Lee, but what he lacks in attitude he makes up for in absolutely mind-boggling martial arts. The man is a physical specimen. Jaa can jump higher than Lebron James, kick faster than Michael Flatley, and hit a bajillion times harder than that hypothetical guy you've convinced yourself you would totally fight if he pushed you or smudged your k-swiss or hit on your equally hypothetical girlfriend. Traditionally trained in muay thai, Jaa is out to do damage with his moves using his knees and elbows to deal precise blows to his enemies. He is one of the most acrobatic martial artists in the industry, backflipping, front flipping, and doing other crazy spins previously reserved exclusively for Tony Hawk video games.
Co-Directed by Jaa, himself, and Panna Rittikrai, Ong Bag 2 is set in the rugged jungles of Thailand. Jaa plays the part of a highly trained warrior of foretold greatness after he was discovered by the head of a clan of a formal band of pirates/guerilla fighters known as the Pha Beek Krut Pirates. At a young age, Tien (Jaa) witness the murder of his father and mother and the movie has a loose revenge scheme, with Tien pursuing parents' murderer in order to be able to assume his position as leader of the pirates. Whatever. The plot is actually pretty engaging for a martial arts movie, but it unfortunately breaks down at the end. Far more importantly, Tien learns the art of fighting from an array of different teachers allowing Jaa to show off a wide variety of different styles and moves.
In my favorite scene of the movie, Tien must prove his abilities in order to become second in command of the pirates. This is a sort of culmination of his growing up/training montage. Jaa is pitted against three different fighters each specializing in a different style. He duels a sword fighter showing his aptitude with a katana and then a strongman or grappler dispaling his facility with muay thai. The second fight in particular is pretty stunning, allowing the viewer to see the technical and stylistic side of Jaa. The last fight in the test is against what I imagine would be the product of Denis Rodman, Mike Tyson, and a super pissed Ben Wallace (oh my god) being hucked into a particle accelerator. It is seriously one of the rawest one-on-one fight scenes I have ever seen, easily exceeding my wildest dreams, and I often have pretty wild dreams about half-naked, yolked men brawling to prove their worthiness of my hand in marriage, which would probably just be a little, intimate ceremony with family. They're just dreams though*, and Tony Jaa is as real as it gets.
Overall, Jaa may or may not be the next Bruce Lee, but I'm going to propose a sort of Chicken Soup answer to the Bruce Lee replacement debacle: there is no replacing the man, only enriching the genre he worked so hard to popularize. Ong Bak 2 offers a far more acrobatic, complex view of martial arts than Lee ever ventured into. Better? See for yourself. I don't know that the question is answerable. They're different, but Jaa's Ong Bak 2 is a must see for any true Kung Fu fan.
*If anyone has a knack for interpreting dreams, please contact me.