Ong Bak

written by Prachya Pinkaew and Panna Rittikrai

directed by Prachya Pinkaew

starring Phanom Yeerum (Tony Jaa), Petchtai Womgkamlao and Pumwaree Yodkamol


review by Stephen Notley

Kung fu movies have changed a lot over the years. Back in the 50s, 60s, 70s, they were fighting-style exhibitions, displays of pure martial-arts prowess that made their way to North America in films like Enter the Dragon and Bloodsport. Just as that style was catching on in America, filmmakers in Hong Kong were pushing kung fu into the realm of the superhuman, suspending their fighters on wires to allow gravity-defying stunts in films like Once Upon A Time in China and Iron Monkey, a more magical style that translated eventually into America in The Matrix and found supreme expression in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero.

In that context, Ong Bak is a throwback. Or neo-classic, take your pick. Either way, Ong Bak is a kung fu movie in the rough, down-and-dirty old style, stripped of all fanciness and myth, little more than a camera pointed at a guy who really, really knows how to do martial arts. The guy in question is Phanom Yeerum (Tony Jaa in goofy transliterated form) as Ting, and the martial art is Muay Thai kickboxing. And let me tell you, Tony knows what he's doing.

We get a taste of it in the opening scene, a bunch of guys in a Thai village clamoring up a huge tree to grab a flag, Ting snagging it and squirrel-hopping lightly down from branch to branch. Then we gotta wait a little bit as the plot unfolds, the head of the local Buddha statue stolen and Ting sent to Bangkok to retrieve it and running into a sleazy gambler from the village named Hum Lae/Dirty Balls/George who steals his money. Plot, plot, plot, but in short order we get to the point, Ting at the fight club breakin' out the impressively brutal Muay Thai we're here to see.

Tony Jaa is a hardened Muay Thai fighter, almost scary to look at, his forearms and shins solid oak, his elbows and knees battering clubs. Ting's master had made him promise never to use his skills, and considering how much of it is based on snap-kicks to the neck and cramming elbows into throats, it's easy to see why. Muay Thai is not safe. It seems to invite disfiguring injury or paralysis. When Ting comes flying in with a solid elbow hammer to the top some fool's head, you wince.

And then there's the chase sequence, a more generalized athletic performance where Tony shows us just how unbelievably strong and limber he is. There's an old-school Jacky Chan feel to the sequence, Ting squeezing through impossible obstacles, though it's sweatier than Chan, less ornately choreographed, more just "Holy cow, did he just do that?" shots of a guy who can clear a car in a running jump.

Outside all his fabulous physical displays Tony Jaa's kind of limited; as an actor, he doesn't have the charisma of guys like Jacky Chan or Jet Li. He doesn't talk much, and when he does his high squeaky bumpkin-accented voice is kind of a shock. Better he stay quiet and stick to fending off saw blades with his forearms, so Ong Bak directs most of its character attention to others, most particularly Hum Lae/Dirty Balls/George, a well realized anything-for-a-baht scumbag, as well as the fight club owner bad guy, a wheelchair-bound crimelord who rattles out buzzing inflectionless Thai through one of those neck-talking voice box gadgets. Sure, they're not complex character portraits, but they're certainly enough to hold the attention in between throat-kickings, of which there are plenty.

So yeah. Ong Bak is a good hearty dose of classic kung fu, a natural movie pick for anybody who could look into his or her heart and honestly say, "Y'know, Bloodsport was kinda cool." And isn't that everyone, deep down?

Vue Pick