After a plethora of martial arts movies where people defy gravity and float above the ground or run up the side of sky-high bamboo stalks, it's a bit of a relief to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when the genre was about flying fists, elbows, and feet, and when flesh met flesh with a thud and a crunch.
Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior is a throwback, a combination of the elaborate fight choreography of early Jackie Chan and over-the-top chase scenes and explosions of the Hong Kong choppy-socky films.
The Ong-Bak part of the title refers to the statue of Buddha in a small Thai village. When the head of the statue is stolen by Don, a former villager who is now a ne'er-do-well in Bangkok, the villagers fear that Buddha's displeasure will bring disaster.
Ting volunteers to retrieve the head.
Ting is the Thai Warrior part of the title. He is a simple, reverent country boy who happens to have been highly trained in the art of Muay Thai, a complex form of martial arts.
Before Ong-Bak's head is stolen, Ting promises his teacher that he will never fight, and he stays true to that promise for about 10 minutes after he gets to Bangkok, then feet start flying.
Ting's promise gnaws at me, for it is so easily discarded. In an American film, that promise would show up again in some form to perplex the hero, or at least cause him some soul-searching. Here, it is so casually discarded that I don't know whether the subtitles don't tell the whole story, whether it's a cultural difference and Asian films are loose about such things, or whether it's bad writing on the part of Suphachai Sithiamphan.
In any case, Ting gets to Bangkok and seeks the help of a former villager, a self-styled player with dyed blonde hair who now calls himself George. George is after the big bucks, the profitable con. He is bad at it, but he keeps trying. George also has taken under his wing Muay Lek, a pretty college student, acting as a combination of mentor, brother, and protector.
George steals the money the villagers scraped together and gave to Ting and heads for a Bangkok fight club, where he promptly bets and loses it. Ting appears and demands his money back, but the only way he can get it is to fight one of the thugs. Five seconds later, the thug is on the floor, Ting has his money, and George sees a new way to get rich, a way that doesn't involve finding the head of Ong-Bak.
This sets up Ting's battles with various bad guys and at least two elaborate chase scenes.
Director Prachya Pinkaew often repeats a fight sequence two or three times from different angles. Whether he's very proud of the scene or simply wants to make sure the viewer gets what's going on is open to question.
He also seems to have a disdain for digital imagery. It's been a long time since I believed that the actors were actually coming in contact with one another. In Ong-Bak, it's hard NOT to believe, which makes these fight scenes inappropriate for the young and tough to take for the squeamish.
Tony Jaa, who plays Ting, is stoic and sensitive, and his fighting is almost balletic in its grace. But there's no doubt he's a good guy through and through. This makes George (Petchthai Wongkamlao) a much more interesting character. Even more interesting are the fighters Ting has to face in the fight club. My favorite is the refrigerator-throwing crazy guy, but the Australian and the Bear are close runners-up.
Those who understand Thai might be able to find something deep in Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior. Those of us who must rely on the subtitles have no such luck. (Example: When one character is beaten nearly to death and his back is apparently broken, another character leans over and asks, "Are you OK?")
The fighting and the intricate choreography of Ong-Bak are fascinating up to a point. After that, they get silly, then simply vicious.
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