Thursday, February 10, 2011

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior

With the popular rising of MMA fighting in the US, it's not too surprising that we have found an actor that specializes in some of the more exotic MMA styles.  Tony Jaa's breakout role was this, Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (sometimes subtitled "The Muay Thai Warrior"), and it is all about showing off what Tony Jaa can do.

The plot isn't terribly deep.  Ting (Jaa) lives in the backwards boonies of Thailand, in a poor, tiny village.  When the village Buddha statue (called Ong-Bak, for reasons never explained to Westerners) has its head stolen by some outsiders, Ting volunteers to retrieve it.  Ting is has had extensive martial arts training, but he has chosen not to use it for his own gain.  That's right...this is yet another martial arts movie where the resident bad-ass is reluctant to fight (for the first half hour).  Ting heads to the big city to find Ong-Bak's head, but he doesn't know the first thing about city life; he does know who stole the head and he has the address for a former villager, Humlae, that came to the city and never returned home.  Ting finds Humlae, who now goes by the name of George (Petchtai Wongkamlao), has dyed his hair blonde, and is a small-time grifter.  After some gambling hijinks from George, Ting ends up in an underground fight, where he knocks out the current champion with only one hit --- a knee to the face.  This angers a local crime lord, who was betting on the champion.  The rest of the film has Ting being somewhat reluctant to fight until he and George can no longer outrun George's creditors/George's grift victims/the crime lord's thugs.

There's not much plot, but that's okay.  This is a movie clearly centered around the action sequences, and there are a lot of them.  Ting has four or five official boxing matches, and they're all decently cool.  Each opponent, of course, has a unique style of fighting that Ting has to overcome, so nothing gets repetitive.  I was less impressed with the rest of the movie's action.  There was an extended chase sequence that, while impressive, was waaay too long and had no real payoff.  That segued into an auto rickshaw chase, which was the dumbest thing I've seen in a foreign movie in years.  These things top out at around 30mph --- that's not an exciting life-or-death race to watch.  Even with the lame chase scenes, Tony Jaa is very impressive.  There was no wire fighting or special effects used in this movie, so that's really Jaa doing all those things.  Of course, a little bit of special effects wouldn't have hurt; in his fights, the opponents often look like they are waiting to get hit, instead of looking like they are fighting.  The good news is that, if you see something cool in the movie once, you will see it again.  The bad news is that the reason you see it again is because they do a slow-motion replay, not because they packed the movie with action awesomeness.  Here's a taste, but beware that this clip features terrible dubbing (go with the subtitles, trust me) and a little bit of naughty language:

With good (if flawed) action and not much plot, attention naturally turns to the acting and directing.  Tony Jaa isn't much of an actor, but he stayed within the range of his talents here.  What does that mean?  Well, let's just say that looking confused or angry is about as good as I think his acting will get.  Petchtai Wongkamlao, who is apparently a big deal in Thailand, was very annoying as George.  Wongkamlao was there as comic relief, kind of like Rob Schneider in Knock Off, and was every bit as obnoxious as that sounds.  I get it, they needed a normal person to try the same stunts that Jaa was doing and show how insanely difficult they are, but Wongkamlao was hammier than Miss Piggy.  The rest of the actors ranged from annoying (George's grifitng partner) to just odd (the Asian afro ninja), but most fit the movie fine.  Prachya Pinkaew directed the film and clearly knows how to film action scenes.  The movie looks very cheap, though; I don't know if their film stock was inexpensive, or if they used a low-rent digital camera or what, but this looks like a movie that was made for the direct-to-DVD market of the late 90s.  While Pinkaew was able to capture a lot of Jaa looking awesome, the grainy quality of the footage is distracting.  As the director, he could have helped make those action scenes better by having the anonymous thugs do less standing around, waiting to be hit, and more pseudo-fighting.  But he didn't.

For what it is, Ong-Bak is a decent movie.  It knows that you don't care about the plot, so neither does it.  There are a lot of cool moves, and they are played back in slow-motion so you don't have to fuss with your remote.  How convenient.  This is just a B-movie, though.  Jaa is clearly an action star, even in his first role, and that elevates this movie above the rest of the cheaply-made martial arts films coming out of Asia today, and it is beyond refreshing to see a post-Crouching Tiger martial arts movie that is free of wire-fu.  While this isn't a great movie by any means, the quality of Jaa's moves is enough to make it worth viewing.

Hilariously, when this movie was released in Europe, they replaced the original Thai score with some French hip-hop sounds.  This music video is a bonus feature on the DVD, and it is AWESOME.

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