In the remote Thai village of Nong Pradu, daily life revolves around the worship of Ong-Bak, an ancient statue of the Buddha. When the head of Ong-Bak is stolen by crooks from the city, the village's toughest young warrior Ting is dispatched to get it back.
While films such as Crouching Tiger and Hero have succeeded in pushing Asian martial arts into the Western mainstream, they have meant that wire-and-CGI assisted kung fu has all but become the norm. Which is why Ong-Bak proves such a refreshing blast of action; without much of a budget and even less storyline, director Prachya Pinkaew equals his peers in terms of thrilling spectacle and outdoes them in one important respect – his fights look real, and boy do they hurt.
It all takes a while to get going – apart from a furious opening sequence in which dozens of young villagers try to prove their physical prowess by fighting their way to the top of a huge tree, there’s not much excitement in the first half hour. Ting sets off to Bangkok, promising the traumatised townsfolk that he will not return without the head of Ong-Bak. Once there he seeks out Humlae, a fellow villager who has set himself up as a small-time con man and spends most of his time trying to avoid a gang of drug dealers with whom he is in considerable debt. Humlae wants nothing to do with Ting and his mission, but finds himself forced to help him locate the Buddha when Ting saves his life.
At this point, Pinkaew all but gives up on the story and hands the film over to his amazing star Tony Jaa (real name Panom Yeerum), a one-time stuntman and expert in the Muay-Thai discipline of kick-boxing. Ting’s search leads him to an underground fighting den, where our hero defeats a series of increasingly tough-looking thugs. There’s no clever editing, no one gliding gracefully backwards in slow-motion, no one pausing in mid-air – just an incredible, bone-crunching fury of feet and fists, as Ting spins, twists and smashes his way to victory. Elsewhere Pinkaew orchestrates a couple of exhilarating chase sequences, one on foot through the streets, Jaa sliding under cars and leaping across market stalls, and one on the road, featuring several three-wheeled taxis engaged in hot pursuit of Ting and Humlae.
Ong-Bak is not the place to look for subtlety or depth. When he’s not fighting, Jaa proves a resolutely wooden leading man, an intense scowl fixed on his face; thankfully Pinkaew uses every opportunity to get him into combat situations. Petchtai Wongkamlao, playing Humlae, provides a little comic relief, but his pratfalling is nothing we haven’t seen in a dozen Jackie Chan pictures. Pumwaree Yodkamol, as his female con-accomplice, is given even less to do – apart from one scene in which she scams a poker game, she spends the film either standing around or wailing when someone she knows gets killed.
The bad guys are stock villains, and the outcome is never in much doubt, but such complaints are quickly forgotten whenever Jaa brings the pain. Like Bruce Lee, Sonny Chiba or Jackie Chan before him, Jaa’s sheer physical presence overcomes otherwise mediocre surroundings, and martial arts fans who look for a little more grit and a little less art in their movies will find much to relish.
Aka: Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior
Thai action director who made his debut with the hard-hitting martial arts film Ong-Bak. His follow up was the similarly themed Tom Yum Goong aka Warrior King, aka The Protector, again featuring stuntman-turned-action star Tony Jaa. He went on to a string of tries at topping his biggest hit, including Chocolate (making a star of JeeJa Yanin), Raging Phoenix, Elephant White and The Kick.