A review of “Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior” by Jeanne Aufmuth

 

Stars: *** 1/2

Rating: PG-13 for extreme violence.  In Thai with English subtitles

Run Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

 

 

The infectious energy of martial artist Tony Jaa turns lemons into lemonade in this low-budget sleeper that should launch the international career of cinema’s next Jet Li.

Ong-Bak’s fight choreography is the shining star; the plot an airy confection that serves as the foundation for a thrilling array of Muay Thai (attack and defense foot boxing) stunts and skills.

In the rural Thai village of Nong Pradu the elders prepare for their great annual festival.  At the height of the frenzy a dark discovery is made: the town’s Ong Bak (Buddha statue) is missing its head.

A former villager has stolen the precious head in order to curry favor with a ruthless Bangkok crime boss, a catastrophe of vast cultural proportions.  The severed head must be recovered by the festival’s opening ceremony so the villagers seek the help of local champion Ting (Jaa), a solemn young man schooled in the ancient Nine Body Weapons of Muay Thai

Off to the mean streets of Bangkok, where Ting attracts a pair of goofy sidekicks and encounters all forms of evil, from street gangs to Fight Club-style bet-and-brawl and the head kingpin himself, a vicious wheelchair-bound creep (Thai vet Sukhaaw Phongwilai) who communicates with the aid of a troubling tracheotomy voice amplifier.

Ting digs deep to resolve the mystery of the missing head, a narrative thread that’s fraught with small-town pride and too healthy a share of streetwise slapstick. 

Devoid of CGI and relying heavily on the thrill of the chase, Ong-Bak is pleasurably reminiscent of the dynamic Hong Kong fare of the 1960s and 70s. Action sequences (which finally kick in about the 40-minute mark) have got it going on; ferocious mano a mano combat and a frenetic pursuit through bustling Bangkok that’s worth the price of admission.

Jaa (aka Panom Yeerum) is the real deal; gently charismatic but gifted with a fierce passion for his sport and its balletic but brutal grace.  His focused martial arts wizardry is unparalleled; frighteningly powerful and entertaining enough to overcome the film’s unmistakable (but harmless) shortcomings.