Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003) / Action-Adventure
aka Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior
MPAA Rated: R for strong violence, language, some drug use and sexuality
Running Time: 157 min.
Cast: Tony Jaa (Panom Yeerum), Perttary Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol, Suchao Pongwilai, Wannakit Sirioput, Cumporn Teppita
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Screenplay: Prachya Pinkaew, Panna Rittikrai
Ong-Bak is a breath of fresh air for martial arts fight flicks, with its refreshing balance of relentless action, raw humor, and subtle symbolism. In many ways, it is reminiscent of the pre-Hollywood Jackie Chan films, emphasizing death-defying stunts and inventive choreography, leaving the audience breathless from the ceaseless energy and sheer audacity of the physical feats of the gifted players. It also marks the impressive debut of Tony Jaa (aka Panum Yeerum) as a formidable action star to watch, perhaps being the next in line to pick up the reigns of aging stars like Jackie, Jet Li, and the late Bruce Lee.
Being a Thai movie, there is a concerted effort to bring in the fighting styles of that country. The difference is clear -- kung fu films showcase a mix of grace and physical dynamics in a struggle that often resembles a high-flying ballet, but in Ong-Bak, the Muay Thai employed is bare-knuckle, smash mouth, elbow-to-the-head action. Nearly every blow has you wincing in mock pain, especially when it all looks so real -- if there's any CGI in the stuntwork, I certainly wasn't able to perceive it.
Jaa plays Ting, perhaps the most gifted martial arts hero in his small rural Thai village. It is a peaceful, self-sufficient place, that is, until a group of bandits sneak in and steal the head of their sacred Buddha statue, the object that they all worship for their prosperity and health, out from under them. The plan is to sell the head on the black market, but Ting vows to retrieve the head to his village, no matter what the cost. So off Ting goes to the big city of Bangkok, joining forces with a reluctant opportunist that may or may not be a former fellow villager named Dirty Balls, and soon Ting finds himself in the middle of an operation that thrives on vice, especially gambling on fighting tournaments to see who is the toughest. Ting finds himself fighting to keep alive, and to save his village from certain starvation and extinction, if he can't get the precious Buddha head back.
Ong-Bak is a fairly conventional martial arts movie, centering around a quest, thrusting the pious hero into the middle of the worst elements of society in order to exact some justice and make things right again. It may be conventional in story, but certainly not in execution, as this features some of the best pure fighting (i.e. non-computer enhanced) seen in this post-Matrix era. The fact that all of the stunt work is real turns what would be a so-so fight flick into one of the most exhilarating martial arts films of the decade. You feel every kick, punch and free-fall, knowing that these actors all performed everything you see on the screen, without computer enhancement, and in most cases, without stunt doubles. It looks like it hurts (and probably does!)
Ong-Bak should be put up near the top of any action fans list of films to see, as this delivers all of the thrilling confrontations, amazing stunts, and tongue-in-cheek humor you could want in a martial arts adventure. One can only wonder just how far the phenomenal Jaa can go once he is stuck into a decent script.
©2005 Vince Leo