ONG BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR has several things going for it that make it a worthy addition to the martial arts oeuvre. There is the particular style spotlighted, Muay Thai, a variation that involves the use of knees and elbows to drive home the action with an intriuguing kind of violence. Mostly, though, there is lean and lithe Tony Jaa, a strikingly charismatic, strikingly good looking, Thai martial arts master who would like to give the legacy of Bruce Lee a run for its money and he might just succeed.
The story here is the classic one. One lone hero goes up against a gang of evil criminals with nothing to rely on but his sense of justice and a body that is a weapon of mass destruction. The bad guys, though, aren’t just exploiting the weak and the defenseless by running drugs, prostitution, gambling dens and the like, they’re also stealing Thailand’s cultural artifacts and shipping them abroad. In particular, they, or rather their somewhat dimwitted henchman, steal the head of a village Buddha, the eponymous Ong Bak. The simple, pious villagers are devastated, but rally enough money between them to send one of their number, Ting (Jaa), to retrieve it from the big bad city and save the village from the devastation that is sure to follow.
A master of Muay Thai learned from a monk who has also made him swear to never use it, Ting has never been to the big bad city, both of which would seem to put him at a disadvantage. His blond-tipped contact in the city, Don (Wannakit Sirioput), is no help. He left the village years ago to seek his fortune in the wider world, a plan that hasn’t worked out. Instead, he runs scams with the help of Muaylek (Pumwaree Yodkamol), a slick and self-possessed woman scamming her way through college, scams that usually end up with Don being beaten up and Muaylek getting excuses rather than tuition money.
There is a tidy plot with a nice dash of wit, a painless dollop of sentiment, and a whole mess of rock ’em sock ’em action that, at times, will take your breath away. The point of the exercise is, of course, Jaa, and the success depends on him being watchable even when he’s not a whirling dervish of righteous payback. He is. He and the filmmakers don’t make the mistake of having him try to scale thespian heights, instead they play to his considerable strengths. The overriding story takes the stealing of antiquities very seriously, but without becoming maudlin. The same can be said of Tings very real sense of spirituality. He may note with the proper sense of caution a man-mountain approaching to battle, but the serenity beneath the crunch and smacks evident between the multitudinous bouts is maintained. At some point, the question arises, just how much abuse can Ting take and the answer is, a lot. Another strength, and a highly touted gimmick here, is that Jaa is not using any wires, CGI, or other screen tricks as he defies gravity and several other laws of physics.It makes the way he flies through the air with an athletic grace and an effortless machismo all the more impressive.
ONG BAK, to its credit, doesn’t do battle with its limited budget. The typical high-speed car chase becomes a race between three-wheeled mini-cabs that works on its own terms, allowing Jaa to show off some acrobatics and Sirioput to take some nicely comic turns. It’s a great time at the movies, and the start of what may be a very, very big career. Be there.