Ong Bak (2003)
The Hof had long ago put me on assignment to review the Ong Bak trilogy. The Hof’s take was that “It pretty much goes the same way as The Matrix and Pirates of the Caribbean trilogies. First one is great, Second is ok (if you fast forward through story), Third is soul crushing.” Enjoy the review and stay tuned for reviews of Ong Bak 2 and Ong Bak 3.
MY CALL: When a martial arts movie does not deliver something totally new to your eyes, then you wasted your time and money and were most likely a victim of an over-hyped trailer. In a world where some of us grow tired of the same old kick flicks Ong-Bak is the fleck of gold you pray to find amid weather-worn pebbles and sand in your sifting pan. See this, then see The Protector, which I think is even better. [A-] IF YOU LIKE THIS, WATCH: The Protector (2005), Chocolate (2008), District B-13 (2004; but NOT the sequel).
This is the movie that unleashed Tony Jaa upon the world as a star rather than a stunt man. In clothes Jaa may look like a 15-year old school boy. But he fights like a wiry-muscled rabid Outbreak monkey and tumbles like a Soviet gymnast as he displays his utterly savage mastery of elbow blunt force trauma to the head. Jaa seems little different from his Hong Kong kung fu counterparts with a name (which is sometimes silly) for every technique. He plays a young lad named Ting, who was recently awarded some sort of village defender title as a result of covering himself with mud, racing other villagers up a tree in a capture-the-flag race, and pushing a few guys thirty feet to the ground like some teen bully who went to school with “The Situation” and Pauly D in Jersey.
We know we have a movie story when some bad guy steals the head of Ong-Bak (a Buddha statue). Ting volunteers to recover the stolen head armed with his muay thai skills, a vial of stale herbs and a crumbled up sandwich bag of cash (which is demonstrably the combined wealth of the entire village, whose poverty was way oversold). Ting starts by locating his city-convert cousin, Humlae, who makes a living as a small-time crook. Humlae quickly steals Ting’s “save Ong-Bak” cash stash and runs off to make some bets at the local fight club. Followed by Ting, Humlae wastes no time fooling Ting into the fighting ring where apparently American Spring-breakers are making bets. By the way, this fight club is owned by our resident Ong-Bak-head-stealing bad guy, a wheelchair-bound geriatric with an electronic voicebox who smokes through a stoma hole. Classic!
The movie takes a while to build momentum, but when some loan-sharks come looking for Humlae things get really fun with a chase scene in the city. After an impressive array of very creative hurdles over and through various moving obstacles, Ting further wows us with yet more jaw-dropping acrobatics. I’ve seen Jackie Chan do a couple of serious stunts over the course of a whole movie. But Jaa matches Jackie’s whole movie stunt quota in a few minutes during this chase. The choreographers and set designers must have worked together very hard to weave this obstacle course. For me, the “holy shit” moment struck when Jaa did an aerial cart-wheel between two panes of glass. Contrary to Chan, we see little humor. But there is one priceless moment that I don’t want to over-explain, so I’ll just give you three words: “Knives for sale.” Good timing and brutal irony give this single grinning clip of the movie a solid Bugs Bunny/Road Runner flair.
Yes. He DID just leap through a three-foot coil of barbed wire.
(Ong-Bak chase scene clip that includes the above and below images in action)
And yes. Jaa “could” have gone around this. But aren’t you glad he didn’t?
Jaa’s level of integration of free-running and acrobatics with martial arts is rare and, frankly, he makes it look effortless. Stunts that I’ve never seen before are in no shortage in this movie. (I’m saying that after watching Jackie Chan movies for more than twenty years!) Like a good martial arts movie, it’s all about the stunts and fight scenes and we are only occasionally inconvenienced with the reminder of Ting’s duty to recover the Ong-Bak head.
The major fighting action takes place back at the fight club where we meet combatants with goofy names like Ali, Big Bear, and an ex-boybander who looks like Howie (seriously) from the Backstreet Boys. The boybander is named Mad Dog for his predisposition for getting “smashy” with random, improvised weapons. Here we see the bulk of the combat choreography, which is more brutal than carefully planned. Rather than having long technique exchanges with elaborate striking, blocking and counterstriking, we instead see a more abrupt, painful execution of elbows and knees to the head and chest. Then flying knees to the chest and double elbows drilling down on the skull.
Here’s one of the crazies that Jaa faces more than once in the movie. Look at this guy. He has the best damned “crazy eyes” I’ve ever seen! And, yup, that’s a saw he’s using to attack Jaa.
The third act (acts one and two being the chase and fight club, respectively) takes place at a cave lair of sorts where Jaa showcases his ability to perform tandem targeted 540’s, a couple of 720’s, and some 540 and 720 horizontal corkscrew-flair check-kicks. When you’re watching the last 20 minutes of the movie and see a whole lot of acrobatic movies you can’t name, that’s what those are.
Tony Jaa is the greatest gift that martial arts has given us in a long time. Watch this movie!
Stay tuned for a warning about the sequels.