Once every twenty-four years, the rustic village of Nong Pradu celebrates the statue of their patron Buddha, ‘Ong-Bak’ – so when the statue’s head is stolen just days before the festival is due to commence, the orphan Ting (Tony Jaa), sets off for Bangkok to retrieve it. Why for instance would Don steal the head of a valueless, lumpy statue? But the nitpicks are irrelevant, since this is all just setup to showcase Tony Jaa’s astonishing fighting skills. Tony Jaa is just badass, simply put. If I saw footage of Tony Jaa walking across water, I would have no problem believing it was true. Especially if he nailed a guy on the head with his elbow at the end of the walk.
Amidst all the frenzied cutting and computer-enhanced artifice of today’s martial arts movies, ‘Ong-Bak’ bursts onto the scene as a welcome, if bruised and battered, throwback to the 1970s. There are no wires, no CGI, and from what I can see no mats; just perfectly skilled performers executing intentionally ferocious, graphic moves. There’s a purity to the action that isn?t all that far from watching an exhibition sport. it is no longer a mystery why the kickboxing art of Muay Thai is known as the ‘science of eight limbs’ – and in case any nuance of his punishing prowess has been missed, wince-making highlights are replayed in slow motion from multiple camera angles, in the powerpunch equivalent of what pornographers call ‘the money shot’.
The movie itself however, is quite serviceable. The cinematography is dark and gritty. The story of a fish out of water farm boy kicking ass in the city is solid enough as a setup. The music is a strange but cool mix of techno-inspired beats and what sounds like a traditional Thai mix. Ong-Bak is aggressive about getting its job done. There are moments in the film that are silly, or just plain stupid, and I can see how some of the secondary characters could grate on peoples nerves. Jaa’s character has a cousin named George, who is like Sammo Hung to Ting’s Jackie Chan. He’s the fat sidekick who spends a lot of time huffing and puffing.
All these shortcomings can be excused once Jaa starts doing his Muay Thai thing. Tony Jaa is supremely talented in a way I haven’t seen since the golden age of Jackie Chan. Although it could use some acting talent to back up its vibrant enthusiasm, and a little more sophistication to its black-and-white morality, it has the perfect blend of religious piety and punishing ultraviolence. Strongly Recommended.