Director : Prachya Pinkaew
Screenplay : Prachya Pinkaew and Panna Rittikrai
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2005
Stars : Tony Jaa (Ting), Perttary Wongkamlao (Humlae / George), Pumwaree Yodkamol (Muaylek), Suchao Pongwilai (Komtuan), Wannakit Sirioput (Don), Cumporn Teppita (Uncle Mao), Chatthapong Pantanaunkul (Saming), Chatewut Watcharakhun (Peng), Rungrawee Barijindakul (Ngek), Nudhapol Asavabhakhin (Yoshiro), Pornpimol Chookanthong (Mae Waan)
In Ong-Bak, a bone-rattling, skull-thumping martial arts extravaganza that was a major hit in its native Thailand and is just now getting a belated U.S. theatrical release, newcomer Tony Jaa vies for the coveted position of 21st-century Jackie Chan by pulling off the kinds of extraordinary feats with his body that are normally done only with digital special effects. He leaps and kicks and bounds and contorts himself in ways that you might think unimaginable were you not seeing them for yourself on the big screen in full color.
Of course, movies are visual flights of fantasy with an inordinate number of tricks to make you think you've seen things you haven't, but Ong-Bak is, pound for pound, as real as it gets. As the film's web site will dutifully inform you, no computer-generated imagery or wires or stunt doubles were used to assist Jaa in his balletics. In fact, the film borrows the old Bruce Lee aesthetic of showing Jaa's most astounding feats of physicality two and sometimes three times in a row from different angles at different speeds. More than anything, the filmmakers want to impress on you the wonders of Jaa's physical presence; he -- or, more to the point, his body -- is the star and everything else is just decoration.
Given the impressive nature of this debut, it is almost beside the point that the martial artistry is mired in a sometimes silly, sometimes sentimental story about a young villager (basically a Thai hillbilly) who travels to the mean streets of Bangkok to retrieve the head of the village's Buddha statue, Ong-Bak. Jaa's character, Ting, is as noble, upright, and honorable as one could possibly be, which naturally makes him somewhat boring.
Near the beginning of the film, Ting is told by his instructor that he has mastered the fighting art of Muay Thai and must now never use it. Yeah, right. If Ong-Bak has a structuring plot device, it is the constant deployment of narrative conceits that force Ting to put up his fists and take on the bad guys, whether he wants to or not.
This is why Ting keeps finding himself in an underground fight club. Ostensibly, he is there because Don (Wannakit Sirioput), the punk drug dealer who stole the head of Ong-Bak, hangs out there, but the real reason is so he can find himself on the fighting floor. The first time he walks out there by accident, and the extremely brief fight that follows is one of the film's funniest moments -- it literally silenced the audience for a full beat before they burst out laughing. The next time he's there, he resists the urge to fight until the challenger starts beating up on a woman; apparently, Ting can only be pushed so far. And, once he gets on the wrong side of the organized crime syndicate for which Don works, which is embodied in a wheelchair-bound Mafioso (Suchao Pongwilai) who speaks through a voice box in a creepy/funny electronic hum, he's guaranteed a parade of opponents at every turn.
Part of the story also involves a former villager, George (Perttary Wongkamlao), who turned his back on the rural life and embraced the world of small-time crime and cons in Bangkok. As soon as George asserts his disgust about Ting's beloved village, you know it's only a matter of time before he is slowly broken down and realizes that the benefits of rural life, with its simplicity, religion, and family, far outweigh the glamour and dangers of the city. Like an old 1930s melodrama, the city represents all that is bad in the world, while the countryside is a place of respite and peace (although, ironically, in the film's opening scene, Ting's village engages in a vicious game in which all the young men fight each other to climb to the top of a massive tree and grab a flag).
Once the storyline is established, first-time director Prachya Pinkaew keeps the pace moving along at a good clip. The fight sequences pile one on top of the other without much room to breathe in between, and Pinkaew mixes it up by making some of them comical and some of them gritty. An extended chase through the backalleys of Bangkok is one of the film's highlights, as Ting leaps through a succession of conveniently placed obstacles, including two panes of glass, a pair of bicycles (in motion, of course), a ring of barbed wire, and finally a four-door car. While this scene is played mostly for slapstick laughs, the fight club scenes are much bloodier and more intense, as is the final showdown in a cave overshadowed by a giant Buddha head. This makes Ong-Bak seem somewhat delirious in its tone switching, moving back and forth between Jackie Chan-style comedy and Bruce Lee-style grit, but it keeps it interesting, probably more so than it deserves to be.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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