When critics evaluate movies, some of the things typically looked at are the direction, the acting, how well the story is put together, and thematic resonance. Sometimes though, none of that matters, and Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior is just such a case. Anyone looking for story or character should check out now. Ong-Bak‘s appeal is intended for a very specific demographic and all others need not apply. This movie is martial arts porn and the only reason to see it is for the action. In that arena, on a scale from 1 to 10, it’s a 20.
Ong-Bak does have the bare bones of a plot. In a poor village stricken by drought, the head of the revered Buddha statue is stolen. Ting (Panom Yeerum, English name: Tony Jaa), an expert in the martial art of Muay Thai, volunteers to track it down in Bangkok. A lost country boy in the big city, Ting needs the help of mediocre con artist Hum Lae (Petchtai Wongkamlao) to find the villains. This is where the only characterization to speak of comes in as the story asks if Hum Lae will abandon his urban vices for the rural virtues embodied by Ting. It’s not difficult to guess the answer to that one.
Jaa is a real find. If martial arts could be rendered as a mathematical equation, Tony Jaa equals Jet Li squared. Before Ong-Bak, Jaa’s biggest break was being a stuntman for Robin Shou in the horrid Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. The athletic skills he demonstrates here without wires or CGI instantly catapults him to the top tier of cinematic martial artists. Jaa and writer-director Prachya Pinkaew are both obviously huge fans of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. The underestimated-rural-rube-in-the-big-city premise stems directly from Bruce Lee’s Return of the Dragon. As much as demonstrating Jaa’s physical combat prowess, Ong-Bak shows off his acrobatic skills as he effortlessly hurdles cars, bounces off walls, and performs aerial somersaults that many Olympians would find difficult. Also taking a tip from Chan, Ong-Bak “revisits” martial arts moves or spectacular stunts by immediately replaying it from different angles. In a Chan movie, this happens at most once or twice. In Ong-Bak, Pinkaew goes to this technique thirty or more times. That would be gross overkill if at least half of them didn’t deserve a replay and the other half would get a split decision on the matter.
Every once in a while a movie comes along that ups the action stakes of acceptable quality in a given field. Jackie Chan’s Project A and Police Story movies did that for fight scenes, John Woo’sThe Killer did that for gun battles, did that for gun battles, and Swordsman 2 did that for wuxia films. Without them Charlie’s Angels, The Matrix, and Hero wouldn’t exist. After audiences experienced the Hong Kong product, Arnold Schwarzenegger-style brawling would no longer cut it. Ong-Bak could one day prove as influential to a new generation of martial arts films. The fight scenes are that spectacular.
And they are frequent. At some point Pinkaew must have said to hell with the story because around the midway point, the movie simply stops trying with the narrative and becomes one action scene piled on top of another the rest of the way. (A weak taxi cab chase should have been left on the cutting room floor though.) Aside from the climatic scenes that involve a saw and some vicious finishing moves, the movie is brutal without going into Takashi Miike (Ichi The Killer) sadism, not that Ong-Bak is at all appropriate for young children. It is way over the top, and every human being in the film can absorb punishment that should kill them ten times over. Pinkaew provides wicked, simplistic villains who are just asking for such punishment, and Ting more than meets it out.