Thursday 27 March 2008

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003)

Somewhere in Thailand is a village called Nong Pradu and every 24 years there's a festival dedicated to Ong-Bak, a statue revered in the village. Part of the festival includes a race up a tree to capture a flag, and it's a particularly brutal race between a whole host of young men coated in mud who aren't held back from throwing each other out of the tree. Winner of the race is Ting, played by Tony Jaa, and when the head of Ong-Bak is severed and stolen a couple of weeks before the key ceremony, it's up to Ting to travel to Bangkok and retrieve it before the village dries up and dies, just like the equivalent village did in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom without their sacred stones.

Tony Jaa is the western name of Panom Yeerum, who became a sensation through worldwide circulation of this film. It doesn't take him long to get into a fight in Bangkok but he denies us a long drawn out battle by taking the opponent down with one very heavy hitting Muay Thai move. It doesn't take long for him to be back in the action again, handling stunts and fights with equal aplomb. He gets to team up with another Nong Pradu villager, Humlae, who is running scams in the capital with a sassy female sidekick called Muay Lek.

Jaa runs like Jackie Chan and especially handles stunts in a similar way. There's one long chase a third of the way in where he shows us what he can do: hurdling cars, leaping between panes of glass, through loops of barbed wire, you name it. Very impressive indeed, and Petchtai Wongkamlao, who plays Humlae, is the Sammo Hung to Jaa's Chan. The instant replay are very Jackie Chan too, but there's more than Jackie in the fighting: Jaa has an economy of movement that reminds a lot more of Bruce Lee but in a very different style. There's some Jean Claude Van Damme, some other western fighters and a lot of what I guess we'll now refer to as Tony Jaa.

There is a story in here but it's pretty routine. Once we're established, it's on with the stunts, then the fights, then the fights that include stunts, and the stunts that include fights, because after all that's what the film is about. The story really doesn't matter. Jaa and his cohorts hit hard and we really feel the blows connect. Ouch! And I really mean OUCH! It's been a while since I've seen a martial arts film where I've reacted to the blows the way I did here. Respect to the new man.

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