Martial arts movies went mainstream in a big way towards the end of the last century. 1998 gave us the Jackie Chan/Chris Tucker buddy cop movie, Rush Hour. In 1999, The Matrix distracted viewers from Keanu Reeves’ and Carrie-Anne Moss’s lack of onscreen chemistry by showcasing the fight choreography of Hong Kong legend Yuen Woo-ping. Yuen again choreographed the action in the wire-fu blockbuster Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Before long, the phrase “played out” started being tossed around whenever the words “martial arts” were uttered. When Crispin Glover and Drew Barrymore are flying around like Shaolin masters in Charlie’s Angels and the zombies in a Uwe Fucking Boll movie know kung fu, then yeah, “played out” is an apt description.
Just as the death of Bruce Lee left a massive void in the martial arts film industry of the seventies, the mainstream acceptance of the same stars who had filled Lee’s shoes created a stagnancy in chop socky movies in the early 21st Century. That all changed in 2003, thanks to a little movie from Thailand known as Ong Bak.
When the head of Ong Bak, the revered Buddha statue in Nang Pradu village is stolen, Ting (Tony Jaa) volunteers to go to Bangkok and retrieve the relic. He [SPOILER ALERT!] eventually succeeds, but only after planting his fists, feet, knees and elbows into the faces of numerous bad guys.
Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
Let’s face it; Tony Jaa is not going to win any acting awards. His range basically consists of asking a question (in this case, “Where is Ong Bak?”) in an angry tone before throwing down. Then again, if you look at martial arts as an extreme form of sign language, then Jaa is indeed very convincing.
This is definitely one of Ong Bak’s strong points, and a strong point of director Prachya Pinkaew’s movies in general. It’s like they know they don’t have much of a story and the actors aren’t all that great, so the idea is to sell the stunts convincingly enough so that the audience will overlook the film’s other shortcomings. Ong Bak is really nothing more than the tried-and-true “fish out of water” story, but instead of winning the hearts and minds of the city folk through his homespun charm, Jaa beats them into submission. Hey, whatever works, right?
Jaa has two sidekicks in the movie, George/Humlae, who is from the same village and Muay Lek, who helps George pull off his two-bit scams. They’re supposed to be comic relief, but the problem is, they’re not very funny. Fortunately, by the time they get to be too intolerable, it’s time for Tony Jaa to crack someone’s skull with a well-placed knee or elbow.
The chief bad guy is a degenerate gambler who speaks with one of those Peter Frampton devices. Even though he has a hole in his neck indicating a laryngectomy, I think it might be an affectation. I swear he yells in one scene without the aid of his electrolarynx (thanks, Wikipedia, for telling me what those Peter Frampton devices are called!). Oh… and chief bad guy apparently finances his gambling habit by selling stolen treasures to international collectors.
Chief bad guy has a bodyguard who is a hard motherfucker. He’s probably not a very good actor, either, because I don’t think he had a single line of dialogue. For most of the movie he’s standing around glowering, hoping that his boss will order him to fuck someone up so he’ll have an excuse to inject massive amounts of performance enhancing drugs.
All in all, the cast isn’t that great, but it’s not too hard to overlook since the people who matter the most in Ong Bak are stuntmen, not thespians.
Hmmm… twenty minutes in, not much has happened, really. The movie starts off with the young men of Nang Pradu village fighting for some sacred banner in a huge — I mean HUGE — tree, but it really doesn’t serve as a hint of what’s to come. We also get to see Tony Jaa give a brief exhibition of Muay boran, in which he gives the inevitable pledge to never, under any circumstances, actually use this deadly martial art. Fortunately for us, Ting is in Bangkok for all of 5 minutes before he forgets his promise.
In spite of a slow start, once Ong Bak gets moving, it keeps a brisk pace throughout. You are forgiven this time, Prachya Pinkaew.
If you’re bored with what Hong Kong has to offer in the martial arts genre, Ong Bak is a delight to watch. The stunts — not just the fights — are dazzling… for the most part. There’s an extended foot chase in which Jaa does some amazing stuff; he even manages to make jumping through some bubbles look cool. Later on, however, there’s a vehicle chase where the stunts are just silly in comparison to the things Jaa does with his own body (The story goes that Jaa grew up idolizing Jackie Chan and Jet Li, not knowing that they used wires to assist with their stunts). The fights are whole different story. This isn’t stylized ballet performed while dangling from wires; Muay Boran is a martial art whose goal is to immobilze opponents in a quick and painful manner. Ong Bak‘s fight scenes aren’t the least bit graceful; they’re brutal… and that’s a Good Thing.
Ong Bak is really just a Thai filmmaker’s calling card, serving notice to the rest of the world that maybe it’s time to get back to basics when it comes to martial arts movies. You don’t need tragic love triangles and set pieces that look like music videos; you just need a guy going from point A to point B, kicking all kinds of ass along the way.
It’s not anywhere near a perfect film, but it’s definitely worth checking out.