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Ong-Bak (A Movie Review)

ONG-BAK (2005)

Starring Tony Jaa, Petchthai Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol, Rungrawee Borrijindakul, Chetwut Wacharakun, Wannakit Siriput, Sukhaaw Phongwilal, Chatthapong Pantanaunkul, Pornpimol Chookanthong, Chumporn Teppitak, Sukanya Kongkawong, Bunsri Yindee and Woranard Tantipidok.

Screenplay by Suphachai Sithiamphan.

Directed by Prachiya Pinkaew.

Distributed by Magnolia Pictures. 105 minutes. Not Rated.

Tony Jaa is being groomed to be the next martial arts hero on the strength of his performance in this film. Comparisons have been flowing in the martial arts community saying that Jaa is worthy of the stardom of Jet Li or Jackie Chan. (Jaa has recently signed up to star in Drunken Master 3 with Chan.)

This is Jaa's first film, filmed on a shoestring budget in Thailand with some help from France (French director Luc Besson of La Femme Nikita fame is an uncredited executive producer). The storyline is not particularly innovative, however it is savvily put together and Jaa's performance, as well as that of Petchthai Wongkamlao (as the comic relief) make for a fun action movie.

Jaa plays Ting, a principled man who lives in an old-fashioned Thai village. When bad guys from the big city steal the head of the "Ong-Bak," a religious statue in the temple, all of his neighbors are sure that they are doomed without the protection of the idol. So Jaa goes to Bangkok to find the head.

In Bangkok he looks up George, a former villager who had moved there in search of fame and fortune, but who is now a cowardly small-time con artist. At first, George tries to look at Ting as a mark, but eventually seeing the bravery and honor of his visitor, George rethinks his own life and tries to help get Ong-Bak back to his hometown.

The thieves hang out in a sweaty fight club in Bangkok, where Ting's skills quickly catch the attention of the local crime lords. The head of the crime family is an older man who speaks through a voice box due to a tracheotomy. (The scene where the chief bad guy smokes a cigarette through the hole in his throat has been done before, but it never fails to be disturbing.) He insists that he does not believe in idols, but he appears to spend a lot of time and effort stealing them.

When the boss loses money betting against Ting, he insists upon the "hick" fighting more at the club before returning the idol head. Ting quickly realizes that they are not trustworthy, so he starts a one-man assault on the mob. This leads to a series of well-choreographed fight scenes, all of which appear to have been done without special effects, just due to the athletic prowess of the cast.

Still, the movie, despite its low-budget origins, wants to play with the action movie big boys. Sometimes it works (a chase through the streets and markets of Bangkok is terrifically choreographed), sometimes it doesn't (a chase with three-wheel Thai taxis tries hard, but you can't get too worked up over a race going about 20-miles-per-hour.) During one fight scene there is a note scrawled as graffiti on a garage door saying, "Speilberg, come play with us." The fact that the famed director's name is misspelled is either charming or kind of sad, I can't decide which.

Ong-Bak is sort of like the old-school martial arts movies of Bruce Lee, just a fun action romp that doesn't claim to be high art or something it is not. As for whether or not it will be the launching pad for a new martial arts superstar -- well, in a just world, Jaa should become a star just for one scene where he fights off bad guys while his pants are on fire. That takes dedication. (2/05)

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2005 All rights reserved. Posted: February 4, 2005.

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