Saturday, February 12, 2005

REVIEW: Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior

Ong Bak is one of those genre films that critics like to say "you'll like even if you don't like ::insert genre here::" Don't believe the hype. This is an old-school style martial-arts film, focusing on Muy Thai Kickboxing, made in Thailand. It's plot is a bare-basics creation, existing exclusively to showcase a specific fighting-style and a specific star using it. If that sounds like something you'd enjoy, this is a damn good example of such and you'll probably enjoy it. If you don't like martial-arts films at all, there's no reason on Earth for you to see this. You will sit bored to tears, wondering why everyone else in the theater is clapping and cheering.

Now, for those of you who ARE into this sort of film (myself included) it's my honor to report to you that everything you've heard is true, and that if your even a casual fan of good kung-fu movies then you owe it to yourself to get to a theater and see this movie. Now.

Shot in Thailand, Ong Bak plays as designed from the ground-up as a martial-arts film for martial-arts fans. The fights are intricate and uninterupted, the styles are distinguishable and cool to see, the stunts are spectacular. Newcomer Tony Jaa is, indeed, the real deal, and if he can fair in a film where the ambitions of the story rise to his ambitions as a physical performer then we have a rising star on our hands. It's becoming sport to compare Jaa to the great stars of the past, but in my estimation he most resembles Bruce Lee in his serious, spiritual-stare and forceful fighting-style.

The plot (which also recalls the early work of Lee) would have been right at home in an old-school Shaw Bros. classic: A small village has been robbed of the head of it's sacred Buddha statue and the local golden-boy, a master of Muy-Thai Kickboxing, is sent to the big city retrieve it. The film wrings a genuinely admirable degree of story and pathos out of this in the simple act of moving this old-school story from it's more natural home in a period Chinese kung-fu peice to present-day Thailand. The culture-clash undercurrent to the exploits of Ting, (Jaa,) the simple "hick" from the traditional rural village as he navigates the streets of busy, modern, quasi-westernized big city Bangkok really does manage to punctuate the action with moments of real humanity, particularly in the character of Ting's reluctant ally Hum Lae, a former villager who has moved to the city, dyed his hair blonde, changed his name to George and runs gambling scams.

In a way, the expressive "George" functions as a kind of emotional-core to the film, complimenting Jaa's position as the driving-force of it's action. It's possible, indeed downright easy, to see this character as a kind of humanization of the story's overall aim of reuniting Thailand's modern, urban present with it's religious and philosophical roots though the unifying element of Muy-Thai. As if to drive the point home, Ting at first refuses to use his skills in combat, but changes his tune when a boorish English-speaking "fight club" participant taunts him that "Thai men aren't strong enough, thats why Thai girls come to my country and become hookers!" Subtlety is not the genre's strong suit.

All of that doesn't really serve to make this more than a film about a young fighter punching his way through henchmen to retrieve a stolen McGuffin, nor does it really need to. The film functions fine on it's own, adhering to the iron-tested formula of the martial-arts genre and delivering all the right beats (and beat-downs) required. There are epic chases, terrific slapstick and jaw-dropping fights. The location-shooting and Jaa's fearless stuntwork gives the film an air of welcome authenticity: Never does anything happen that appears outside the realm of the possible, and while I dearly love Hong Kong wire-fu it's absence here really is a mark in it's favor.

What more can I say? It's a top-class fight film with a great fresh face in the lead. Action fans in general and kung-fu fans in particular really need to see this. You may have seen the trailers wherein Wu-Tang Clan's "The RZA" offers you much the same advice. You should listen to The RZA on this one. If you're not inclined to listen to The RZA about anything, or if you have no idea who The RZA is, you really should see something else.