A film review by Craig J. Koban


2003 (International Release), 2005 (North American Release), R, 107 mins.

Ting: Tony Jaa / Don: Wannakit Siriput / Khom Tuan (boss): Sukhaaw Phongwilai / George: Petchthai Wongkamlao / Muay Lek: Pumwaree Yodkamol / Ngek: Rungrawee Borrijindakul

Directed by Prachya Pinkaew /  Written by Suphachai Sithiamphan

In Thai and English with English subtitles

I entered into the new martial arts action film ONG-BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR with the most skeptical of heart.  It seems that all of the recent advertising has been making great pains to reveal that there was no use of any major special or practical effects to create the film’s powerful action scenes. 

Hmmmm…okay, but I guess that I subscribe to the notions that director George Lucas once said that all of cinema is an illusion.  Yes, there does not appear to be any of the computerized trickery in ONG-BAK that saturates many film these days, nor is there any wires present that have made characters in such films like CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON and HERO glide across the screen with grace.  However, I feel that the filmmaking process is one elaborate special effect by making the unreal feel real.  Editing, which ONG-BAK relies heavily on, almost becomes an effect in its own right, but I digress.  Maybe I am taking the film’s marketing sham a bit too literally. 

Then there is the incredible physical presence of Tony Jaa (that’s with two a’s…no typo here, folks).  Now, I use the term “physical” for specific reasons.  Jaa has been garnering some serious attention from this film as being an heir-apparent to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.  I guess that maybe he’s a bit of a hybrid between the two screen legends.  He has some of the trademark intensity of Lee while the most obvious parallels seem to be with Chan himself, who’s own miraculous and poetic stunts mirror much of what Jaa does in ONG-BAK.  To be sure, I see a considerable amount in Jaa as I did when I saw in Chan at his peak, especially in his greatest film, DRUNKEN MASTER 2, where he performed stunts so outrageous and gutsy that his sanity for doing them always was a dark question that loomed heavily on my mind.  Anyone who remembers one final moment in that film where Chan falls into boiling hot coal - for real - will know what I am talking about. 

However, don’t worry Chan and Lee fans.  Tony Jaa is a serviceable replacement at best. 

I came out of ONG-BAK with a supreme level of appreciation and admiration for all of his death-defying feats.  The film is ripe and thoroughly engaging on the level of showcasing all of the goods that this young man has to offer.  There are some moments in ONG-BAK that are as robust and visually engaging as many that I have seen in DRUNKEN MASTER 2, as was the case with several of the film’s larger fight sequences.  Jaa is a physical talent that deserves to be placed on a pedestal with the immortally wacky and intrepid Chan. 

Yet, Jaa’s feats and abilities occupy a film that is too long for its own good, too crazy and cornball to be taken too literally, and kind of uninvolving for much of its running time.  The other failing of the film is, ironically, Jaa himself.  He is physically charismatic, but he genuinely lacks the warmth, humor, wit, and underlying sense of goofiness that Chan has.  Jaa, in this way, is both a delight and a bore to watch.  He is a wonderful stunt performer, and there is definitely something to be said about a guy that will leap over cars and walk literally on top of peoples’ head just to get back a silly Buddha head from a statue. 

The film itself is well over 100 minutes long, already about 10-15 minutes too long for films of this nature.  Actually, the film has a relatively hard time picking up its pace for its first act and meanders around until it gets its firm footing for the third thrilling act.  One glaring thing that I did notice were how many times the makers felt the need to do not one, not two, but often three replays of the same action/stunt sequence, which is annoying and frustrating in the sense that it kind of sidesteps the intense amount of awe we have by seeing something once and once only.  By being so repetitive with this technique the makers are robbing us of this visceral reaction.  ONG-BAK feels like a film that is for those with attention-deficit-disorder, and could have benefited from being trimmed by a few minutes if they lost all of the action-replays.  Maybe the makers took such pains to make the respective scenes work that they could not bring themselves to throw out anything. 

Films like this don’t resonate in any way because of their plots, characters or dialogue, as ONG-BAK is about as preposterous and ridiculous with all of those elements as you could possibly already imagine.  The film is essentially one elaborate chase/fight scene after another and involves the hero who is desperately trying to search for the head of a Buddhist statue that was stolen from his home village.  Apparently, the village will suffer and die a slow painful death with this head not in place, or some nonsense like that. 

Anyway, Jaa has been trained by Buddhist monks and has been given strict orders by them to not use his fight training in any way, which sure as hell indicates to us that he will in fact use it later.  I guess you can begin to realize that these ancient and sacred vows of non-violence are worth about ten cents to the hero, who willfully displays a great disdain for them by wiping out nearly any evil person that crosses his path.  Before we know it, he agrees to go to Bangkok to retrieve the ancient statue, but not before he finds himself in a series of carefully choreographed stunts which involve a lot of blood, sweat, and people getting punched, kneed, kicked, and thrown in ways I was not really sure were possible for a man who made sacred vows of martial art celibacy. 

I am going to be absolutely fair to ONG-BAK by saying that it is, unequivocally, the best film about a Thai martial art warrior searching for his missing Buddha head while battling the minions of an evil underground crime lord that I have ever seen.  Honest. The film exists on two distinct, but similar planes of reality that sort of inspire the same reaction.  On the one hand, and on a level of brainless and wonderfully choreographed stunts, ONG-BAK is fantastically entertaining.  On a plot and dialogue level, the film also inspires our complete disbelief.  The film is hopelessly dopey, and maybe a Jackie Chan could have helped here, who’s own inherent silliness could have acted as a buffer for the material, but in Jaa’s hands he is such a brooding and primal presence that you kind of wish you could slap him across the face and tell him that he should be in on a joke.  That is, of course, if you could hit him. 

On a primitive action level, ONG-BAK is memorable and thrilling.  It starts off rather interestingly with a wild cat and mouse chase up a sacred tree, during which several warriors all climb it in hopes of claiming the flag on top.  When several fall many feet down, the hit with a thug so penetrating that you actually feel their pain.  There is also another virtuoso chase scene during which Jaa displays his uncanny flexibility, speed, and poise as he makes his body contour and go through just about everything in his path.  Chase scenes like this exist in these types of films as a way in which characters have things thrown at them for them to get through, like two men carrying out a large coil of barbwire.  Why barbwire?  Never mind…its there for Jaa to jump through. 

When Jaa has nothing to jump through, he jumps over, and there is one moment where he is literally jumping on the heads of his assailants.  There is also another inspired chase involving three-wheeled vehicles later on, as well as an epic and elongated fight scene in an illegal Bangkok fight club where Jaa must , to quote the great Patches O'Houlihan, dodge, dip, dive, duck…and dodge nearly every man that wants a piece of him.  Okay, these scenes are, in fact, the product of practical effects trickery in the sense that they are choreographed and made even more raw through selective use of camera angles and editing, yet they are still a visceral treat for the eye. 

I am not sure where else to go with this review.  ONG-BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR is an ultimately engaging but disposable entertainment, one in which for every scene that produces serious feelings of awe there are about a dozen that inspire serious groans.  It's own self-indulgent manner of repeating shots of the stunts over and over again kind of tires the film very soon.  I kind of felt both thrilled and a bit empty watching it, and this was not helped by a rather charmless performance by the lead actor.  After seeing ONG-BAK I am, no doubt, lead to believe that Tony Jaa is a real talent that could be the next “it” action star.  He’s got the physical moves down pat, now all he has to do his harness in a bit of charisma and energy with his performance in a more satisfying film that will utilize these talents.  I was so impressed by what I saw in ONG-BAK that I guess I was a little disheartened by how dull the film actually is.  It will be a breath of fresh air for those who want a good old-fashioned chop-sockey flick; all others wanting something approximating a workable and sensible story, stay clear.

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