“Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior” is exuberant action escapism — a gloriously entertaining movie that offers equally pleasurable bouts of campy plot and artful ass-kicking. Though the film aligns itself with genre conventions and somewhat overstays its welcome, it knows exactly what the audience wants and delivers skillfully and straightforwardly with 107 minutes of unrestrained martial arts shenanigans.
The film opens in a rural, modern-day Thai village, which is in shambles after the head of a religious statue — the Ong-Bak — is stolen by thieves who want to sell it to an urban crime lord. The village elders believe it is the end of the line for their people until the obligatory young hero, Ting (Tony Jaa), volunteers to venture into town and save the sacred stone.
From there, the film massively shifts gears, vaulting Ting into a Bangkok underworld that looks something like an Asian version of “The Fast and the Furious.” What he lacks in street smarts (the locals refer to him as “the hick”), he makes up for in outrageous, martial arts skill and a keen eye for pissing off all the wrong people. That in turn maximizes the number of cans of whoopass he must open in order to retrieve the Buddhist statue, which is a very good thing indeed.
Of course, this story takes a backseat to the film’s lead, Jaa, a martial arts dynamo who seems destined for international stardom. Like Jet Li, Jackie Chan and perhaps even Bruce Lee himself, Jaa is an absurdly talented athlete who glides through every frame of the film with marvelous grace. But unlike his predecessors, Jaa possesses a talent that is rare among almost all action stars, international or otherwise: He can act. In this film, he actually seems like a man fighting for the honor of his people, and not just some action movie pawn who awkwardly stumbles from one fight scene to the next. Jaa is already an accomplished stuntman, and with the help of this film, he could emerge as a new star of martial arts cinema.
Despite Jaa’s personal triumph, though, much of the credit for the film’s success is owed to its fight choreography and the way these elaborately constructed scenes carry the story from battle to battle. In one particularly impressive sequence, Ting runs from a gang along a city street and effortlessly dodges every obstacle imaginable — all of which is real stunt work done by actual people without any digital effects. The rest of the film follows suit, turning what could have been a series of silly action contrivances into one thrilling sequence after another of pure balletic skill.
Nevertheless, “Ong-Bak” is not a total triumph over the conventions of standard action flicks. It covers little new ground and indulges the familiar, thinly plotted martial arts formula, but it has uncommon energy and vitality thanks in large part to Jaa, the film’s heart and soul. Beyond his performance, though, the highly competent production team makes “Ong-Bak” worth seeing in its own right, bringing down the house in all of its joyously campy, graphically violent and cheerfully understated glory.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars