Ong Bak

Muay Thai acrobatic onslaught that leaves few gobs unsmacked.

Released in 2003, certified UK-18. Reviewed on 12 May 2005 by Scott Morris
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Confession time. Due to a combination of over-eagerness to see one of the most talked about martial arts films in recent years and my own abject stupidity, this review is based on a DVD with no English subtitles. Obviously this isn't an issue if you can speak Thai, that being the land of origin. I cannot speak Thai, so if it's specifics of the plot you're after you might want to look elsewhere.

Not that the storyline is likely to be the reason you'll be interested in Ong Bak. The title refers to a holy statue in Ting (Tony Jaa)'s tiny rural village. It's stolen by a couple of evil city types, who turn out to be part of an evil drug smuggling crime syndicate. How evil. To reclaim the statue and the good luck and protection it brings to the village, Ting travels to the big smoke, advised to hook up with some fellow village escapee previously opting for an urban lifestyle.

The name of this fella? It is, I think, the deliciously named Dirty Balls (Petchtai Wongkamlao, who's also more mundanely listed on IMDB as Humlae and George, but I prefer Dirty Balls. Matron). He's swapped the simple life for a career as a small time hustler, con artist, cut purse and flim-flamming rapscallion. Taking advantage of fresh-faced Ting's naivety, it's not long before he's got them into bother that Ting will have to fight his way out of.

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Ah yes! Fighting! That's what we singed up for! Frankly the story, even for someone who admittedly isn't going to pick up on the nuances, or indeed anything, of the dialogue is so straightforward and familiar that it's not particularly taxing to follow. It quickly takes a back seat to the action, which drives the movie in jaw-dropping style.

You don't see a lot of Muay Thai kickboxing in movies, and you don't see a lot of Muay Thai that looks like this. It's tagline boasts of an absence of CG, of wirework and apparently even the most slender nods to the Health and Safety at Work Act. Tony Jaa does things that aren't possible. Seriously, he must be an escaped government project to build a man of some experimental rubber compound. He displays a grace and athleticism that would easily pick up a gold in any Olympic gymnastics discipline, with the added advantage that he's staving someone's face in at the same time.

At the risk of repeating myself, you've never seen anything like this. It has the fluidity of Jet Li's earlier works, the attitude and efficient brutality of Bruce Lee and the timing and complete disregard for personal safety of a Police Story era Jackie Chan. These are not names to be bandied about lightly. These people are legends, and I'm a miserable, nitpicking curmudgeon loath to grant anything respect. When I say that Tony Jaa belongs in the same class as the aforementioned stars, it's about as lofty praise as I or anyone else can lavish on him. It's a truly breathtaking display of personal ability, and his 'trademark manoeuvre' of the leaping elbow to the skull is so much better than Jen Claude Van Damme's spinning kicky thing that it's not worth mentioning. Or worth deleting the sentence having already mentioned it.

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You can't make a martial arts film without hittees for the hitter to hit, if you'll forgive the technical jargon. Kudos must be given to director Krachya Pinkaew for finding a stunt team that hold their bodies in the same blatant disregard for sensible safety precautions as the star. From right off the bat, people are getting battered, bruised, broken, bloodied, beaten and barmitzvahed, although the last one may just be there for alliterative purposes. The pummellings they have taken for our light entertainment pleasure are duly noted. Good work, old chaps.

The only downside to having some of the most impressive fight scenes committed to celluloid is that the surrounding material struggles to hit the same high notes. I might not understand much Thai but the language of played out plot devices is pretty universal. Kidnapping one of the heroes' best friends to force them to do their bidding? Previously corrupt character shamed into straightening up and flying right? Not exactly genre-redefining stuff, but it's also not intrusive enough to detract much from it's other glories.

Anyhoo, you won't have to suffer the guesswork when this film hits U.K. cinemas later this month, and even if the dialogue turns out to be something unspeakably horrible like a Thai translation of Dark Lord De Berg's Lady in Red it's still going to be worthy of your attention if you've even the most passing interest in people hitting other people in a cinema-orientated environment. Between this and the impending Kung Fu Hustle, we've never had it so good, chop sockey wise. Bask in it.

Were I in the business of passing quantifiable judgements, I'd award this 4/5 TippyMarks.

Prachya Pinkaew
Cast list:
Tony Jaa (Ting)
Petchtai Wongkamlao (Humlae/Dirty Balls/George)
Pumwaree Yodkamol (Muay Lek)
Suchao Pongwilai (Komtuan)
Wannakit Sirioput (Don)
Cumporn Teppita (Uncle Mao)