Film Reviews: Wednesday, February 9, 2005
Tony Jaa takes on the Bangkok underworld in ‘Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior.’
Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior
Starring Tony Jaa. Directed by Prachya Pinkaew. Written by Prachya Pinkaew and Panna Rittikrai. Rated R.
Muay Bueno

Look out, Hong Kong! The next big martial-arts star might be The Thai Warrior.


With Jackie Chan now past his 50th birthday, the question looms: When he leaves, who’s going to take his place as the star of the energetic, lowbrow, crowd-pleasing martial-arts movies that are among Asia’s most popular exports? This territory has never been home to the cat-quick, humorless Jet Li, who’s always looked better in period pieces. Stephen Chow is considerably younger and has the right attitude, but he’s a better comedian than kung fu star. Zhang Ziyi is 26 and the most dazzling martial-arts star of the young set, but she’s been confined to period pieces, too, and her appearance in Rush Hour 2 notwithstanding, she has yet to impress Western audiences in a contemporary setting (though she’ll have a chance to do so in Wong Kar-Wai’s upcoming 2046).
So into this void steps Tony Jaa (né Panom Yeerum), the star of Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior. It’s the first major role for this performer, who employs his country’s distinctive kickboxing discipline known as Muay Thai, a style of fighting that features twisting torsos and severe angles, and a lot of flying elbows and knees. The film has already scored a good-sized hit with Hong Kong audiences, and it’s easy to see why this technically accomplished underdog picture has made an impression.
Jaa plays Ting, a simple young man from a rural village called Nong Pradu who’s forced to travel to the big city after Bangkok-based thugs sever the head of the Buddha in the village temple and take it away. This means more than just a religious defilement; it also means bad luck for the town in the form of drought until the head of the Buddha — called “Ong-Bak” by the villagers — can be retrieved and brought back. Ting takes up the mission, and his search leads him into a world of drug dealers presided over by a mob boss who speaks through an electronic voicebox (Sukhaaw Phongwilai). Guiding him through this world is Hum Lae (Perttary Wongkamlao), a prodigal son from Nong Pradu who now calls himself George and lives in Bangkok as a small-time criminal with a gambling problem.
Jaa’s being positioned to inherit the throne of Chan and Bruce Lee before him. While he has neither Chan’s immediately appealing personality nor Lee’s matinee-idol good looks, it’s evident that he has some serious skills. The first action sequence, a footchase through a marketplace, finds him executing a series of impressive leaps over tables, cars, piles of garbage, and other obstacles obviously placed in his path for the movie’s purposes. The climactic fight against a Burmese boxer (Chatthapong Pantanaunkul) has the best moves, but the most spectacular scene finds Ting in a fight club taking on in quick succession a muscle-bound, frizzy-haired English bloke (Nick Kara); a tiny Japanese guy who dances around Ting’s blows (Nudhapol Asavabhakin); and a huge American (Hans Eric) who’s big enough to throw a full-size refrigerator at him. The filmmakers take a page from Chan and make some inventive use of props — the American pulls an electric wire from the wall and tries to stun Ting with it, one of the mob boss’ underlings fights him with a whipsaw, and George foils a group of thugs by throwing a plate of hot chili powder in their faces.
There’s no subtlety to cloud things up here — the bad guys do drugs, abuse women, disdain religion, plunder Thailand’s cultural treasures, and express contempt for the hicks from the country. First-time filmmaker Prachya Pinkaew also displays some annoying tendencies, such as his willingness to use slow-motion during the action sequences to the point where the film starts to resemble an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger.
Despite this, his fight scenes are crisply edited to best display Jaa’s prowess in combat; obviously he’s been studying the Hong Kong masters for inspiration. The fights aren’t the only things that come off well. There’s an extended chase involving a fleet of three-wheeled taxis (common transportation in Bangkok) that any Hollywood director would be proud of. We have to deduct points from the taxi chase because it resorts to that old standby of destroying a fruit cart, but the sequence wins bonus points for the oddly appropriate throat-singing on the soundtrack. Pinkaew even takes time to inject a shout-out — you can clearly see scrawled on an alley wall the English words, “Hi Speilberg let do it together” [sic] — and because the film is such a slick piece of work, the message comes off as charmingly hubristic rather than fatally pretentious.
With its eye for the glitzy yet seedy corners of Bangkok, Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior has the scruffy B-movie spark of Jackie Chan’s early stuff or of the 1970s blaxploitation pictures. Tony Jaa may or may not have the allure to become the next international star, but between this film and the genre pictures by the Hong Kong transplants the Pang brothers (The Eye, Bangkok Dangerous), Thailand looks like a threat to join the rest of Asia as a producer of interesting movies.

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