Awaiting his chance to be ordained as a monk in his small Thai village, Ting's (Tony Jaa) plans are put on hold when thieves steal the head of the beloved Buddha statue ("Ong Bak") the village revolves around. Putting their faith in Ting's skills as a martial artist, the villagers send the young man off to Bangkok to retrieve the head. Upon arrival, Ting finds that his con-artist cousin (Petchtai Wongkamlao) may hold some leads to the whereabouts of the statue. Unfortunately, he also realizes that he must compete in illegal underground fights to get closer to his objective.
The birth of an action film star is a precious thing. Bruce Lee stopped the world in "Fists of Fury," Jean-Claude Van Damme came out of nowhere with "Bloodsport," and Steven Seagal made a promise that he couldn't keep with 1988's "Above the Law." "Ong Bak" (IMDb listing) comes from the same pool of martial arts entertainment: low quality, lit with matchsticks, and with a focus not on story, but the lead actor's unbelievable skills. This new player in the game is Thai superstar Tony Jaa, and he packs enough punch to resuscitate the not-quite-dead-but-certainly-pathetic action genre.
While it lacks a glossy crossover quality, "Ong Bak" is a terrific way to introduce Jaa to world audiences. Bored with Jackie Chan? Tired of bloodless, over-choreographed fight sequences? "Ong Bak" answers these pleas with vicious, tight combat, putting Jaa's honed "Muy Thai" fighting style to the test in a number of action sequences that showcase his blunt brutality along with his nimble, balletic movement in tricky situations (like, say, jumping feet first horizontally through a roll of razor wire). Director Prachya Pinkaew gets a little carried away capturing Jaa's extensive abilities, and he has the annoying tendency to repeat shots of Jaa in motion two or three times in a row for effect. However, Pinkaew lets Jaa show off some dynamite martial arts skills for the larger set pieces without clogging up the images with needless style.
"Ong Bak's" most curious pledge is the lack of CGI or wirework during the chase sequences or slap fights. This boast shows in the messy, ragtag quality of the brawls, but it's wonderful to see an action film that has little reliance on visual trickery. I'm curious to see how long Jaa will be able to keep this up.
While Jaa's technique and thunderclap force is compelling, "Ong Bak" all too often straddles that dangerous line between parody and disaster. The film is structured like a prototypical 1990s Van Damme vehicle, earnestly taking such goofy ideas as a wheelchair-bound, tracheotomy-patient bad guy, another villain who pounds needles into his chest when extra fightin' power is needed, a dank "fight club" bar with its legions of overacting patrons, and some awful Thai hip-hop to score the combat -- and the film delivers all of this with a straight face. he retro feel to "Ong Bak" actually adds to the experience, and to be fair, either you find the goofball, low-tech spirit of the piece entertaining and easygoing or you don't. Either way, Tony Jaa is a force to be reckoned with, and "Ong Bak" a dazzling debut for this fresh face.
Filmfodder Grade: B+