Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 09/01/05 13:58:28

"Prepare to be thoroughly, properly stunned."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Tony Jaa. One part Bruce Lee, one part Jackie Chan, Jaa’s a martial arts star who fights like nobody’s business, then caps it off by performing stunts of the most outrageous variety. Following years of study and work as a stunt double, Jaa’s film debut as leading man and action star is “Ong-Bak,” the much-anticipated release from Thailand that’s finally making its Stateside debut. As a film, it’s an average actioner - but as a demo reel for what Jaa can do, it’s a triumph. I haven’t been this thrilled by a new star since I saw my first Jackie Chan movie.

Indeed, “Ong-Bak” reminds me most of “Rumble In the Bronx.” Chan has made far better movies before and since, but “Bronx” worked because it too served as Chan’s demo reel for Western audiences, and Western audiences were floored by what Chan could do with his body. Now we get Jaa, who’s also willing to risk life and limb for a good stunt - but he also brings a seriousness that’s pure Bruce Lee. If Jaa can live up to the promise he showcases in “Ong-Bak” (and it looks like he can), martial arts fans will soon have a new favorite son.

The story involves the backwoods village of Nong Pradu, where once every twenty-four years, the citizens hold the Ong-Bak festival, named in honor of the Buddha whose statue watches over the villagers. It’s a contest of physical prowess, and odds are in favor of young Ting (Jaa) to be the victor.

But just as quickly as we’re introduced to this quaint, isolated world, we’re torn from it. The head of Ong-Bak is stolen, and Ting offers to travel to Bangkok to retrieve it; there’s a touching scene, highlighting the differences of Ting’s world and the world he is about to enter, in which the villagers, one by one, give the lad the precious little money they have. And then, like a shot, we’re transported away from this idyllic town to Bangkok, where the bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free, as someone once said. Bangkok, Oriental setting and the city don’t know what the city is getting. But I digress.

Ting manages to track down his cousin Humlae (Perttary Wongkamlao), who’s now passing himself off as a tough named “Dirty Balls” George. (What a name!) A visit to the local illegal boxing club leaves Ting being named the new champion (despite a few fine moments earlier on, it’s this scene that provides the first “holy crap!” moment of the film), and although all Ting wants is the villager’s money that was stolen from him, George sees a golden opportunity at big money.

And that’s about it as far as plot goes, at least for the next hour. Ting and George cross paths many times with each other and with the local mob (led by a deliciously bizarre villain who communicates via one of those tracheotomy voice boxes). The duo get caught up in many, many, many chases, which are the flimsiest of excuses by which we get to see Jaa run up a wall or dive head-first through a hoop made of barbed wire. No, none of it makes much sense - it’s as if the chase led our hero directly into the Parade of Breakable and Dangerous Objects - but hot dog, is it ever fun.

Following an awkward subplot involving a drug addict (Rungrawee Barikindak) whom I think Ting and George once knew (most this plotline was cut for the film’s international release) and a seemingly endless (in a good way) scene in which Ting finds himself forced to defend his “champion” title, the plot finally gets back on track, with Ting and George tracking down the villains, who not only have the head of Ong-Bak, but seem to make a living by stealing the heads off of Buddha statues around the nation, making a profit by destroying centuries of heritage.

Despite the fact that many scenes run endlessly with no real connection to the story, there is, hidden within, an economy of storytelling often missing in movies. Director Prachya Pinkaew reveals a knack for airtight action sequences; nothing is wasted in Pinkaew’s quest to thrill, not props, not setting, not even time. Consider the scene in which Ting faces opponent after opponent in the boxing club. We’ve already seen our hero defeat what appears to be the toughest foes in the world. Then a man of average height, average build steps up. The club announcer sees him, and his face drains of color. All he can say is before fleeing for his life is “Oh God! Mad Dog!!” In a mere five seconds, the film tells us to hold on, things are going to get nasty, and quick. A less assured film would have spent more time somehow building up Mad Dog; not “Ong-Bak,” which doesn’t have a second to waste, not when there’s action to be had.

In fact, the flimsy story here is surprisingly more involving than most flimsy story action flicks, and there’s a solid level of heart and soul to the project that lends the film a depth often missing in these types of works. For a movie with a disposable storyline, it’s nice to see that the filmmakers bothered to make it an enjoyable one.

There is one problem here that keeps “Ong-Bak” from being a better film. Pinkaew’s decision to use that old trick of stopping time to rerun a fancy stunt two, three, sometimes four times, all from different angles, all so we can see Jaa dive through that barbed wire again and again. Lee and Chan lived by this gimmick, sure, but never to this extent - it’s as if the filmmakers are afraid the viewer might miss any of their impressive moments, and so nearly all of them get this repeat treatment. It’s forgivable at first, irritating by movie’s end.

But, hey, if goofy stunt duplication is the price one has to pay in order to see Tony Jaa fight a guy while his freakin’ legs are on fire (!), that’s a price I’m happy to pay. “Ong-Bak,” despite the occasional flaw in presentation, is an unquestionable marvel when it comes to playing the role of stuntman showcase. Eye-popping, jaw-dropping, and awe-inspiring, this is Tony Jaa’s grand arrival into the action world. And it’s an arrival you don’t want to miss.

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