Just as Japanese filmmakers were about to claim the award for supreme dominance in the realm of martial arts filmmaking, Tony Jaa, representing Thailand, may have just knocked them back down the ladder. With audiences needing more awe-inspiring action sequences, current martial arts directors have reinvented the genre to include standard fight scenes mixed in with acrobatics that open the eyes and drop the jaw. Even more impressive, as Ong Bak’s marketing points out, is that Tony doesn’t have a stunt double or wires. When he leaps over a moving vehicle, it’s real.
In a small village in rural Thailand, the villagers are preparing for the festival celebrating their deity, Ong Bak — represented by a large statue sitting in the main sanctuary garnering prayers from devoted followers. When a thug from the city named Don (Wannakit Sirioput) steals the head of the God to sell for his mob boss, the village implores Ting (Tony Jaa), a master of the Muay Thai fighting style, to go to the city to retrieve it.
In the city, Ting finds Humlae (Petchtai Wongkamlao), the son of the chief, who has gone off to Bangkok, changed his name to George, and become a local scam artist, scrounging for money only to blow it gambling at the city boxing club. George, along with his partner in crime, Muay (Pumwaree Yodkamol), incessantly goad Ting to fight in the boxing club to make money. Ting’s only focus is to find Don and return the head of Ong Bak to his village. As with most predictable action movies, these two plot points soon intersect with explosive consequences. Ting engages in more than half a dozen fights with random thugs, and runs away from a gang through the streets of Bangkok, jumping over cars, school children and cartwheeling through the small space between two panes of glass. These action sequences are so intense, they make Jackie Chan look like he belongs at a quilting bee next to my grandmother.
As far as the story goes, it is a straightforward hero’s journey where good triumphs over evil. The characters are flat, but capably acted, and the camera work is simple and understated. While these may be drawbacks to some moviegoers, they are ultimately strengths for Ong Bak, especially in the hands of director Prachya Pinkaew, who understands that his plot is merely a vehicle for Tony Jaa to get to the next amazing fight or chase sequence. This is evidently clear when many of the more impressive feats are repeated from different camera angles. Verisimilitude be damned, Pinkaew wanted his audience to revel in Jaa’s brilliant martial arts rather than worry about creating any deep emotional connection to the characters. And it works.
Overall, Ong Bak is an incredibly fun movie that delivers only what it promises, and, in true action film style, leaves the dramatics at the door. However, while Pinkaew does not over-think the plotline, his direction shines through, drawing out the differences between the rural countryside and the vicious streets of the city by changing shot styles, and drawing parallels between the two by mirroring sequences from each location — before Ting leaves for the city, his fellow villagers each give him coins to help on the journey, and he is showered with American coins by onlookers in the boxing club in Bangkok.
If you are looking for twisting plotlines, subplots or character development, this movie probably isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a film where dramatic tension is stamped out by Tony Jaa’s elbow to the skull of a bad guy, Ong Bak will have you panting by the time you leave the theater.
Final Grade: A
The Upside: Tony Jaa doing the splits to slide under an oncoming vehicle.
The Downside: With little story development, you can easily find yourself bored between fight sequences.
On the Side: Japanese actor Takeshi Kitano of Battle Royale fame makes a cameo appearance as a man selling cigarettes in the boxing club during the second fight there.
Cole Abaius is a member of Film School Rejects.