Ong-Bak (Thailand 2003)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 11/15/04
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Cast: Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao

The small Thai village of Ong-Bak has the head of its benefactor Buddha statue stolen, and it's up to the village's strongest warrior, Ting (Tony Jaa), to try and retrieve it. With a handful of clues and a small amount of cash, Ting heads to the big city in search of the head. He enlists the reluctant and misguided aid of a couple of swindlers, who eventually become loyal allies. Much comedy and tragedy ensues, culminating in a rough and brutal kickboxing showdown between Ting and the dozens of lackeys that the villain throws at him.

With films like "Ong-Bak", Thailand is quickly becoming a hot-bed for martial arts action films. While its budget and production values are rather modest, the action is top notch and the fight scenes are savage. No wire stunts, cut-away shots, or camera tricks here, just raw, full contact brutality, beautifully filmed and edited. The stuntmen in this film suffered dearly for their art, and while kickboxing isn't the most graceful or cinematic martial art, the performers are charismatic and skilled enough to keep it visually interesting. Tony Jaa is an amazing physical performer, whether he's effortlessly leaping over a moving car or dislocating someone's jaw. Many of his antics are reminiscent of early Jackie Chan films, with obvious nods to "Dragon Lord" (1982) and "Project A" (1983), while the tone and execution actually reminded me a lot of Brandon Lee's "Rapid Fire" (1992). Unfortunately, where the movie falls apart is with the absurd and annoying antics of the supporting characters, who are always up to some lame-brained scheme to make a quick buck. The main con artist (George, aka Dirty Balls) is an obnoxious and loud-mouthed prick reminiscent of Jordan Chan's more annoying roles, and the comedy elements are forced and weak. His partner is an adorable young woman, who's just as loud-mouthed, but a bit more sensitive and sensible. Ultimately, if you're a martial arts or action fan, "Ong-Bak" is definitely worth a look.