when the hopes of Asian action fans were dimming, along
comes Ong-Bak. Despite a hackneyed story, stock
characters, and nondescript acting, this 2003 Thai import
comes chockfull of all-out, acrobatic action the likes
of which has not been seen since early-nineties HK Cinema.
Star Tony Jaa dispenses punishment with cinematically
satisfying panache, and his opponents take it with equally
pronounced bone-crunching oomph. Ong-Bak may
not be art, but it sure is fun.
Jaa is Ting, a country
boy from the village of Nong Pradu. He comes to Bangkok
to find and return the head of Ong-Bak, the village
buddha who supposedly protects and helps the village.
The head was stolen by greasy fellow Don, but he's not
the main culprit. It's actually crime boss Khom Tuan,
a wheelchair-bound bastard who talks through an electronic
voicebox and generally acts like an evil bastard. Khom
Tuan steals and sells national treasures (like Buddha
heads), and also runs illegal boxing dens on the side.
Aside from being entertaining free-for-alls, these fights
are convenient meeting locations for all the principal
characters. The fights are frequented by George (Petchtai
Wongkamlao), another Nong Pradu transplant who denies
his rural roots and pretends to be a fulltime city boy.
When he steals Ting's money and uses it to bet to Khom
Tuan's fights, Ting goes in pursuit. Big surprise: Ting
ends up in the ring.
The characters of Ong-Bak come straight out of a screenwriting handbook. Ting
is the stoic, righteous, ultra-kickass country boy;
George is the loudmouth sidekick who denies his roots,
but later realizes how important they are; Khom Tuan
is your standard evil bastard, who cheats and steals,
and breaks his word with pride; Muay (Suchao Pongwilai)
is the tomboyish street girl who's drawn into the film
only to provide some sort of girl/child anchor for those
in the audience who need one. The film's conflicts and
themes are also routine and by-the-numbers. Muay's sister
prostitutes herself to get Muay into school, George
questions his personal rift with his father, and the
big city is portrayed as complete crap next to the simple
rural life. The good guys fight for family and honor,
and the bad guys for greed and the desecration of culture.
If Khom Tuan turned out to be Ting's father, the film
would only be slightly less original.
However, what makes Ong-Bak special is not a brilliantly plotted narrative, nor
any witty, post-modern dialogue. In this film, those
things are strictly routine, and possess all the excitement
of a sick fish. Nope, it's the action in Ong-Bak that sets it apart. Tony Jaa runs, jumps, and courts
mortal danger with a panache that matchesand sometimes
even eclipsesJackie Chan in his prime. The illegal
boxing sequences possess a fun mix of styles (Muay Thai,
standard boxing, Jeet Kune Do), and are choreographed
with a dynamic, and gratefully brutal impact. An extended
chase sequence through the back alleys of Bangkok showcases
Jaa's impressive athleticism, as he jumps over obstacles
(cars, people, sharp objects) and sometimes even through
them (rings of barbed wire, parallel planes of glass).
It's all a little over-the-top and showy, but who goes
to a movie like this for gritty, no-nonsense realism?
If Jaa is the future of Asian action stars, that wouldn't
be a bad thing at all.
Jaa's physical abilities are
especially fortunate when you consider that his acting
prowess is far from refined. Jaa is blankly handsome,
but possesses little charm or overt screen charisma.
Essentially his job in Ong-Bak is to show up,
stand around, then jump into action using his flying
elbows of doomwhich doesn't really recommend him
for a variety of roles. Hopefully Jaa will be able to
make more than Ong-Bak clones one day, but right
now, it's all good. For those jonesing for the glory
days of Asian action cinema, Ong-Bak is just
what the doctor ordered. (Kozo 2003/2004)