Review: Ong-Bak

Tony Jaa is Ting, from the Thai village of Nong Pradu, who ventures to the big smoke when a no-good druggie thug steals the prized head of the title Buddhist statue to pawn off for money. He meets up with a wayward former villager named George (played by the decidedly un-George like Petchthai Wongkamlao), who is now somewhat of a small-time hustler. George, selfish bugger he is, wants nothing to do with Ting or his quest. But then he sees the naive hick fight. Ting only gets into a fight when a lead has him arrive at a club where a local crime boss runs illegal fights for money. However, Ting realises his best chance is to infiltrate the gang by fighting at the club. Pumwaree Yodkamol plays Muay, a street kid with a love-hate relationship with George, meaning that the latter finds the former supremely irritating 99.9% of the time.

All martial-arts fans owe it to themselves to see this 2003 Prachya Pinkaew martial arts movie from Thailand, and in fact, most of you probably already know and love it. Most others may not wish to apply, but believe me, it’s your loss because this Tony Jaa sure is something . So I’ll tell you all about it anyway. The film has a simplistic, old-school Shaw Brothers meets early Van Damme (“Bloodsport”) vibe about it, with Jaa in the Gordon Liu/JCVD role, and a touch of Bruce Lee thrown in on top. For me, simplistic is not necessarily a bad thing, especially in a martial arts film. In fact, if it didn’t present such a crime-ridden view of Thailand (gambling, fighting, hookers, etc.), I’d call it an engaging, good-natured film. True, the set-up is a bit rushed, but it gets the job done nonetheless. However, Jaa’s character isn’t very well-developed, nor does it give him much to do on a dramatic level, and that certainly prevents the film from greatness. But this film isn’t trying to re-invent the wheel, surely and it’s still a lot of fun.

As the motor-bike riding Muay, young Pumwaree Yodkamol is so insanely irritating she’s actually, weirdly adorable. And she’s cute to boot. Best of all is the action. Oh. My. Freaking. God. The most important thing here is that it’s all real (Yes, those guys are genuinely falling out of trees, and it must’ve hurt like a sonofabitch). That is to say, no wire-fu, no CGI, Jaa is really doing his stuff (which, by the way, is a precursor to Muay Thai called Muay Boran). And it is awesome to behold, especially since he makes it all look effortless. The guy looks so damn precise with every move. Outside of the martial arts, there’s a cool, amusing spin on the usual car chase, involving Tuk Tuks (Three-wheeled Thai taxi cabs) that reminded me a little of a similar scene in “Octopussy”. By far the best scene, though, is towards the end where Jaa manages to perform spin kicks whilst his freaking legs are on fire! What kind of nutter even attempts that? Tony Jaa does (presumably as safely as possible, whatever that may mean), and he’s a bad arse mofo. I was almost impressed by him as I was when I first saw Siu-Wong Fan, in “The Story of Ricky”.  As you may know, that was a film where Siu-Wong Fan supposedly had such super-human strength, he could punch right through a guy’s stomach- aided by special FX, of course. But his martial arts prowess was also on display in the film, and he was damn impressive at such a young age, just like Jaa.

Overall, if you like the big three of Van Damme movies (“Bloodsport”, “Wrong Bet”/“Lionheart”, “Kickboxer”), you’ll probably love this too.

Rating: B


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