Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior is one of many Asian imports
to the States these days, but it is the first to come from Thailand,
and more importantly it’s the first to feature the superlative
Tony Jaa. The movie’s tagline is “No
stunt doubles, No CGI, and No strings attached.” Make no mistake,
this movie is the real deal, and its star Tony Jaa is, to borrow
a phrase from the now-infamous Patrick Duffy, “a
fucking cesspool of talent”.
Like most martial arts movies it has very little in the way of
narrative. A young man, Ting (Tony Jaa), lives in the idyllic small
town of Nong Pradu somewhere in Thailand. One day a group of toughs
breaks into the shrine and steals the head of Ong-Bak, an artifact
of immense religious value. Of course it is up Ting to follow them
to the hive of scum and villainy known as Bangkok and meet Hum Lae
(Petchthai Wongkamlao), a former resident of Nong
Pradu who is studying to be a priest. (Important note: Bangkok supposedly
translates to City of the Angels) Once there he finds Hum Lae now
goes by the name George and has abandoned his small-town roots for
life as street hustler with the aid of his partner in crime, Muay
Lek (Pumwaree Yodkamol). Those are the central
conflicts to the movie. Can Ting recover the Ong-Bak statue from
crime lord Khon Tuan (Sukhaaw Phongwilai) in time
for the town’s religious ceremony? Will Hum Lae and Muay Lek
be so inspired by his example that they turn their backs to the
glamorous, but ultimately empty life of the big city? Is it really
necessary for me to give you the answer to any of these questions?
Tony Jaa is what sets this movie apart from the competition, way
apart. It takes 20 minutes of screen time until he is tricked into
fighting at an underground tournament, but after that he is constantly
running from, chasing after, or knocking out the film’s many
villains. More than once during the aforementioned sequences the
audience would loose a collective sound of disbelief as he performed
the impossible. The movie helped to dispel this disbelief by replaying
footage of his more dangerous stunts from different angles a la
classic Jackie Chan films. In fact a man of his
superhuman abilities should be given a mask and a cape. Tony Jaa
is an incredible athlete but that does not make for a good martial
arts movie (Gymkata anyone?). The fights deliver on every
level; muay thai is a brutal, efficient art where no energy is wasted,
which is not always fun to watch, but you can feel his pain and
the pain of his opponents when it is obvious he is giving 100% into
everything that he does. Combine this with the action scenes’
fast pace and superb editing to create the perfect illusion. Occasionally
the movie gets a little over the top, as when two guys who should
be corpses continue to stand up and exchange blows, but it is a
minor quibble since not even death should interrupt action this
Tony Jaa has one more secret weapon in his arsenal beyond his
athleticism and martial arts—his charisma. Action stars often
have the most threadbare plot and minimal character development
to back them and yet they need the audience to be emotionally invested
in them. Here the audience actually cares about the outcome every
combat and is solidly in the protagonist’s corner. Some stars
have this quality (Jackie Chan); others don’t (Steven
Seagal). Lucky for us Tony Jaa has it to burn. Part of
the attraction is, he constantly pushes himself to new height. We
as the audience get the impression that, if effort were capital,
then no expense was spared in the making of this movie.
Tony Jaa combines the physical whimsy of Jackie Chan with the
straight beat down of Bruce Lee. Everyone will
enjoy Ong-Bak, but action fans will find a special place
for the DVD, right next to their copy of Fist Of Legend.
Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.
Itís worth a full-price ticket.
Itís worth a matinee ticket.
Wait for video rental.
Check out the video from the library, if you must.
While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...