Starring Tony Jaa, Dan Chupong, Eric Marcus Schuetz
Directed by Prachya Pinkaew
Fight Choreography by Panna Rittikrai and Tony Jaa
In 2005 martial arts cinema was growing dim. Jackie Chan was starting to show his age, and both he and Jet were making vastly inferior American martial arts films, and Hong Kong seemed to be stuck in wire-fu films. Donnie Yen was on the verge of breaking through, but before he could out came Ong Bak, which would be the beginning of a flood of martial arts films from Asian countries not named China or Japan, and introduced the world to its newest martial arts star: Tony Jaa.
Jaa plays Ting, a religious young man from a small village named Nong Pradu. Yes, he’s that badass country bumpkin played by so many others over the years, but its a formula that aways seems to work, especially since this is in Thailand. The film opens with a large group of guys who are about to make their chiropractor very happy making their way up a large tree, but what a tree it is, as these 20-some-odd guys run up it, tossing, kicking and punching anyone they run into off as a part of some village ceremony to become the new protector of the village. This scene, sets the stage for the entire film, reminding us of the reckless stuntman abandon not seen since Jackie Chan’s 80’s films, which is a good thing. Ting wins the ceremony, making him the next Ong Bak priest. Holy crap, the baddest ass guy in the town gets to be the damn priest! I’d hate to run into their local constable. Badassery x10! anyhow, Ting is preparing for his christening ceremony, showing him going into some of his Muay Thai forms.
As the rest of the village prepares for the festival and ceremony celebrating Ong Bak, the statue that the people worship of a diety that brings peace and tranquility to their land, embodied by the statue. So of course some total douche has to steal its head. The lucky fool is named Don, who steals it to pay his debts to the local mob boss in Bangkok. Ting leaves for the big city, getting the money for the entire town to fund his journey to get Ong Bak back, and is also given side mission to find a villager’s son named Humlae who had left some years prior for Bangkok, and not heard from since.
We soon find Humlae, now calling himself George, running scam jobs with his partner, a young girl named Muay. They try to scam a local gang, but as it seems happens often, George gets his ass kicked and his money taken. Soon Ting finds him, much to his dismay, as he wants to forget where he came from. George takes Ting in, but no sooner than you can say “sucker” George steals Ting’s money and takes off for the local underground fight club, run by Don’s boss, a guy in a wheelchair and a neck hole thingy he talks through. Ting arrives to get his money (they never say how he finds the place. I’m guessing he’s got an internal Jackass meter), and in doing so is inadvertently engaged in a fight. Well, we’ll call it what it is, a guy running into Ting’s leg and deciding it wasn’t really worth pursuing further. Ting gets his money back, and George see dollar signs. Meanwhile the crops dry up, and a drought hits the entire town. Jeez, armageddon took how long, like 2 days? Damn, that Ong Bak is hardcore.
The next day finds George, for whom no good beating is ever enough, running yet another scam job, this time at a local gambling establishment, and once again bites off more than he and Muay can chew. Ting shows up, and while he doesn’t care if George gets his ass kicked, goes into action when Muay gets slapped around, which would become a pattern for this guy. Dude: learn to defend yourself, asshole. Lady: To the rescue, but only after you get a tooth knocked out! It would be nice for Ting to become a bit proactive with his saves. Peng, the guy they ripped off earlier, shows up, but with more men than Ting can handle, and this leads to a fantastic chase through town, with Ting showing off acrobatics we haven’t seen since Jackie Chan’ s early days. (Note the second reference to JC. If you look closely at Tony’s first two films, they evoke many of Jackie Chan’s actions scenes from the 80’s, which makes a lot of sense. Tony was a kid at that time, and JC was probably his hero growing up. I believe in some interviews he’s admitted as much.) Tony takes some of those acrobatics to the next level, providing some exciting moves that are incredibly graceful. Comic relief abounds in this scene, particularly a moment involving a knife saleswoman.
Soon Ting and George are back at the fight club, this time to find Don. While doing so, a local fight who looks a lot like a stunt double for Slash from Guns ‘n Roses threatens a woman to get Ting to fight him, saying things about Muay Thai style that you just don’t say. Ting ignores him, and a local waiter come in to save her, and gets his ass beaten badly. Once again Ting is like “dude, you should’ve learned how to fight. You’ll learn after you get out of ICU.” Once the same woman tries to save the guy and gets her jaw rearranged for her trouble, Ting goes all “AW HELL NO” and gets into the ring to provide the patrons, and the film audience as well, a clinic on Muay Thai, which is not that Van Damme shit you see in films like Kickboxer. He kicks Slash’s ass, and proceeds to fight a guy who fights with some form of Kung Fu, or maybe Tae Kwon Do, but it doesn’t matter as he kicks that dude’s ass too. The last opponent is the one thing in this film that bothers me. Rather than give us an amazing fighter to end the scene, they give is a guy who looks like a back up rapper for House of Pain throwing shit at Ting, who either blocks or dodges or simply gets hit with all the crap the guy throws at him. This is the film’s weakest moment.
Ting and George track Don to his apartment, which leads to a laughable chase through Bangkok on some sort of vehicle that looks like a large go cart, and Don’s buddies get in the chase well. Maybe it was the way it was filmed, but those things look like they were going 2 miles an hour. The chase ends in Don escaping, but Ting discovers a cache of hidden artifacts that Don’s boss is pissed to lose, so he kidnaps George and Muay, and threatens to kill them unless Ting gets in a ring and fights Saming, his right hand man, who takes some sort of drugs to raise his adrenaline, and beats Ting like a drum.
Of course the bad guys won’t keep their end of the bargain, and attempt to have all of them killed, which really pisses Ting off as he just got his ass kicked for them. This leads Ting to kick ass left and right , and even kick a dude’s ass with his LEGS ON FIRE, which sets a new standard for badassery. After delivering a package marked “ass kick” to Don, Ting and George go to an excavation site where all of the bad guys are gathered, about to take the head of a diety much like Ong Bak illegally, and Ting must deliver another impressive beating to a group of unfortunates. I couldn’t help but notice these stunt men were wearing padding, which I suppose couldn’t be helped, but took me out a little bit. Still awesome scene of Tony delivering fantastic move after move. After warming up, Ting faces Saming again, and this time whoops his ass. I loved it when Saming then stabbed himself with 5 syringes of that adrenaline drug. Even the mob boss is like, “dude, WTF?” It doesn’t really matter as Ting uses his elbows to turn Saming’s skull into the consistency of jello. This is one of like 3 times Ting has to kill this guy, who keep s getting up again and again until Ting has to pile drive his knees into the guys chest and fall 2 stories and implant him into the ground.
Soon Ong Bak is saved, but at the cost of George’s life. Ting and Muay return to the Nong Pradu, and Ting is sworn in as a priest, thanks to George, the man who hated his village enough to leave it but at the same time loved it enough to sacrifice himself to save it. A satisfying ending.
(On a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best)
CHOREOGRAPHY: (9) Excellent for a debut film from a new star. The fights really hearken back to the HK work from the 80’s and early 90’s before wire-fu and wuxia films took over. A harder style is refreshing, and looks less like the dance like choreography of Hong Kong films. A great showcase of Muay Thai fighting. The only knock was that scene between Tony and that House of Pain guy. Other than that, good work.
STUNTS: (9) Great stuff from these guys. They took hits and tossed themselves around impressively, and timed everything well, and did some of what looked like horrendous falls. We haven’t seen this level of stunt work since Police Story 1 and 2.
DIRECTION: (8) Prachya Pinkaew does a great job positioning the camera so we can see everything that goes on, and nothing is MTV-edited. The story is simple but flows well, and the actors are convincing for what they are asked to do. He makes sure the camera is on Tony so you can see that it’s all him.
STAR POWER: (8) Tony is a great martial artist, but his acting can use a bit of work. He seethes, but still seems just a little lost on dialogue scenes, but since that isn’t why we watch, nothing is lost there. He’ll improve as he gains experience.
FINAL GRADE: (9) Tony Jaa took the martial arts film world by storm, and this film sent a clear message that China would no longer have a stranglehold on the best martial arts films out there, and this film would pave the way for a new wave of martial artists. A simple story with good fight scenes, and truly showcases a brand new talent. His best is yet to come.