Judge David Johnson frickin' loves this movie.
I think "Ong Bak" translates to "Holy #%$&, did you see that?!"
Tony Jaa is amazing. At first glance this diminutive Thai may seem unimposing. He's only 5'8," he's not bulging with vein-laden muscles, and he's got boyish looks—far from the 'roid-raging action icons we're used to from Hollywood. But after a few minutes with Ong Bak: Thai Warrior, I defy you to not bow down and christen him the Next Big Thing in action cinema.
Facts of the Case
Jaa plays Ting, a simple guy from a small farming town in Thailand. When he's not driving the local girls wild with his seven-foot vertical leap or putting in the hours with his Muay Thai master, he's whiling away the time in reverence to Ong Bak, the town's deity. Life is good for Ting.
But when a slimy city boy named Don steals the head off of Ong Bak to sell on the black market, Ting volunteers to track him down. The villagers give him some money and a ratty knapsack, and he heads off to find the statue. When he arrives in the city, he meets George (Petchtai Wongkamlao), a former villager turned street hustler and all-purpose comic relief. At first reluctant to aid the naïve Ting, George changes his tune when he sees the guy in action at the local fight club.
After inadvertently getting pushed into fighting, Ting lays waste to the champion, stunning, among others, the local crime lord and his short but deadly bodyguard. Smelling a potential fortune, George connects himself to Ting and puts him on the path to finding the Buddha head. This path, thankfully, leads into a nonstop series of incredible brawls, each set piece topping the one before. The results have to be seen to be believed.
Let's get this out of the way now: As you can tell by the synopsis, the plot of Ong Bak: Thai Warrior is about as intricate as a Nerf ball. Bad guys steal a statue's head. Good guy goes after it and beats up lots and lots bad guys. There are a few elements thrown in here to beef up the whole criminal organization aspect of the plot, but it's just salad dressing. The sole purpose of the threadbare story line is to provide a serviceable endoskeleton on which to drape the awesomeness of Tony Jaa. This isn't a thinking man's action movie. This is an action man's action movie.
The first third of the film takes its time and may seem dull to many, but, truthfully, I thought this worked. The plot arcs did nothing for me, but what I really thought was great was the slow buildup to Ting's eventual flurry of fury. His initial scraps are brief, offering only glimpses of his ability. As the movie moves forward, however, and the set pieces are drawn out longer (including an unapologetically contrived foot-chase scene put together merely to highlight the various physical talents of the film's star), Jaa gradually reveals more and more levels of his super-fists-of-destruction, until the final third of the film is just an all-out festival of pain and head trauma.
The draw of this film is the incredible physical exhibition that its lead presents. The martial arts action (predominantly Muay Thai, which translates particularly brutally onscreen) is straight-up—there is no wirework, no camera tricks (aside from a few slow-motion replays), and no CGI enhancement to the fighters.
When you see Tony Jaa scamper up a ten-foot wall with ease, he's really doing it.
When you see him leap cars, he's really doing it.
When you see him perform gravity-defying spin kicks or brutal overhead forearm smashes or aerial knee thrusts from five yards away, he's really doing it.
When you see him surrounded by goons with no way out and he…but I'll let you see that one for yourself.
The action in Ong Bak is an amalgam of Jet Li, Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan: almost balletic in appearance, but brutal in execution. It's simultaneously beautiful and cringeworthy to watch (and yes, I am specifically thinking of that saw fight at the end). And the action is shot very well. There are no ultra-fast ADHD Hollywood quick cuts. The sequence are edited with far more restraint than the blink-and-you-miss-it mayhem of movies like XXX or, sadly, some of Jet Li's more recent American excursions. The camera lingers on the fights here, allowing the viewer to soak up the mastery. This works great for two reasons: (1) It adds to the realism; these guys are connecting with their attacks. They may be pulling their punches slightly, but these suckers are no doubt feeling the pain. (2) The actors can afford the screen time because they're the real deal. Jaa and his opponents (who are impressive in their own right) obviously have the skills to pay the bills and don't have to rely on clever cuts and camera work to falsely bolster their ass-kicking prowess.
Overall, if your fisticuffs taste tends more to the plot-driven type, I'd suggest a film like Fist of Legend. But if you're down with jaw-shattering, leg-breaking, copious martial arts mayhem, blind buy Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior. That's not a recommendation I give lightly, either.
Fox has put together a fine DVD for American distribution. A 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is crisp and free of dirt. The picture is strong throughout, despite some noticeable struggles in a few of the climactic cave fight sequences, which transpire in the dark. But I've seen this film in the theater and on several import copies, and in my opinion it looks the best on this disc.
The 5.1 Dolby Digital mix is in Thai, with English subtitles, which I normally prefer in foreign films. The mix is strong and very active, and the fight scenes hit hard. However, the subtitles are more like straight closed captioning, highlighting every ambient sound ("techno music playing" or "woman crying" or "crowd cheering" or "techno music continues"). Thorough, sure, but it quickly grew irritating. As an alternative, a stereo English-dubbed track accompanies, but no one likes dubbing and the track is underwhelming compared to the 5.1 mix.
Finally, about the score. Many times, import flicks like this get a newly remixed soundtrack, and it's the same with Ong Bak. Usually, these soundtrack tweaks are annoying, but I liked the changes to this film. While the original score was infectious and catchy, it was overused throughout the movie. This version sports some different stuff (yes, it's techno, and not all of it is great, but at least there's no gratuitous rap music) but still saves the original tunes for the last, great fight. A good move.
While the disc isn't flush with compelling extras, there a few choice nuggets. A brief but interesting live demo by Tony Jaa will put to rest any doubts you had that he can't actually pull this stuff off, and some B-roll footage of the action scenes offer some nice glimpses behind the scenes of the film. I would have certainly appreciated a more robust documentary, and maybe an interview with Tony Jaa or something, but I guess he'll just have to remain an enigma—an enigma who can rip out my esophagus with his thumbs, sure, but an enigma nonetheless. Throwaway bonuses like a short Muay Thau moves list, a rap video, and a "making-of-the-rap-video" cap the offering.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I've tried to sell this film on the action components, and I stand by how killer they truly are. However, there is a sequence in this film where the routine is disrupted; it's a big chase with taxis (the international three-wheeled death trap variety), and here, unfortunately, the filmmakers decided to depart from any sense of realism and instead take the much-traveled Bruckheimer path, with huge explosions and impossible physical maneuvers. Blah.
Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior is a film that gets much play in my house. Jaws have dropped on every single person I've shown it to. It's just a relentless beat-down of a martial arts flick, kinetic and hugely entertaining. And yes, I probably do have a man-crush on Tony Jaa.
Not guilty. Now I'm off to go break my neck trying out some of those moves.
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