From: Subject: Date: April 21, 2005 3:53:51 PM CDT Hankblog

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Ong-Bak (2003) Starring - Tony Jaa, Perttary Wongkamlao, Wannakit Sirioput; Director - Prachya Pinkaew; Rated R for violence, language, and some sexuality and nudity; trailer here.

As a sports fan, I'm always amused whenever a new young phenom is pronounced the second coming of whatever superstar was the latest uberlegend to grace a particular field. Kobe Bryant was the next Michael Jordan, at least until LeBron James came along. Tom Brady is the next coming of Joe Montana. Ken Griffey Jr. in his prime was Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Willie Mays all rolled into one until attitude and injuries did him in.

With movies there's a similar sort of pattern, though the comparisons tend to run more strongly with action heroes. Jackie Chan suffered from the label of being the next Bruce Lee until he carved out enough of a niche to stand out in his own right, and in some ways become bigger than Lee through longevity, skill, and charm. Jet Li was set up to be the next big martial arts star here after Chan, until a series of bad films really curtailed his ability to grow in the US market.

Now with Ong-Bak, a Thai film made in 2003, and just now getting some theatrical play in the US, Tony Jaa (real Panom Yeerum) may be the next action star to start getting the comparisons to Chan and Lee. Based on the skills he exhibits in the movie, he may be able to live up to the hype.

Jaa plays Ting, a young man from a small isolated village in Thailand. He is sent by the people of his village to attempt to retrieve the head of the Buddha statue (called the Ong-bak) that has been stolen by a street hood from Bangkok. Once in the city, Ting attempts to enlist the aid of Hum Lae (Wongkamlao), an expatriate of the village who has fallen away from small town life in more ways than one. Ting's quest and Hum Lae's debts send them spiraling into a criminal underworld of street fighting and artifact smuggling. Their combined goals put them across the path of a criminal overlord (Sirioput).

As far as story goes, there's nothing here that hasn't been done a hundred times over in other movies. Ting is the reluctant warrior, only willing to fight if it means returning the Ong-bak to his village. Hum Lae is the fallen away wandered who must be shown the error of his ways in order to gain redemption in his own eyes, if not in the eyes of those of his former village. The fights Ting gets into to find Ong-bak become more convoluted and more intricately choreographed as they build to a show stopping climax.

So why give this movie a view if you've seen it all before? Because you've not seen anyone fight quite like Jaa in anything prior to this.

Jaa is a practioner of the style of Thai boxing called Muay Thai. Frequently in American martial arts films you see at least one of the bad guys fighting in that style as a change up to the more conventional karate/kung fu style of the hero (the first incidence of this that comes to my mind is the film Bloodsport, when Jean-Claude Van Damme fights a Muay Thai boxer about halfway into the film). Muay Thai in my experience has never really been given a showcase to show what it's really all about in an action film.

All of that changed for me with Ong-Bak. Jaa, to put it rather bluntly, is a serious ass kicker of the first order. He gets ample opportunity to show off the more graceful aspects of Muay Thai, as well as its pure raw power. There's not just a lot of flying chops and kicks. There is a very healthy dose of blunt power in Jaa's elbows and knees that he shows off in a stunning variety of moves. Come to think of it, Jaa really really likes using the elbows. A lot.

Jaa also has a strong amount of charisma as a serious actor. Though he demonstrates some of the cat like quickness and reflexes of Jackie Chan, he does it with a serious demeanor that's much more suited to my experience with Jet Li, and Bruce Lee before him. Jaa is a serious man who's all about the job at hand, but he is not as wooden as some of the American action stars who have come before him (Steven Segal or Van Damme being prime examples). I wouldn't expect Jaa to put on the Thai equivalent of Hamlet's soliloquy, but he does strike me as someone who can more than act his way out of a paper bag. The same couldn't be said for Segal or Van Damme.

Director Prachya Pinkaew relies a little too much on double and triple takes from different camera angles to show off Jaa's skills for my taste. Beyond the repetitiveness of seeing a triple take over and over, the movie does flow decently once it gets past the initial exposition to set up the story. I think there's a fair amount of ground that could have been explored more with a subplot about the theft of Thai artifacts related to the theft of Ong-bak that could have been explored more. Normally the domain of a more serious non-action film, I think that Pinkaew could have still made a statement or two on this particular area with the way he portrays the crime boss running the theft ring beyond the black-and-white bad guy he's painted as.

But no one is going to see this movie for political subtext. They're going to see this movie to see some asses get kicked in a big way. They won't be disappointed with this film.