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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior" (2005)

Ever since Jackie Chan took the plunge into mediocre American escapist fare, the action genre has been missing something integral to the genre: The one-man action show. Chan has been doing the best he can in otherwise dreadful films such as “The Tuxedo” and “The Medallion,” but these films also show what taste he has in the material given to him. I can clearly picture him sitting at home flipping through a script saying, “there’s a fight scene, good….fight scene, good…fight scene…okay, when do we shoot?” Give him an unlikely partner, stick to a formula and slap it with a PG-13. His niche in the action genre just doesn’t have the flavor it once did.

Newcomer Tony Jaa, star of “Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior,” seems more than willing to pick up where Chan left off. It’s not a buddy film, it’s not in English and it carries an R rating for extreme violence. Jaa doesn’t have the comedic punch that Chan does, but his own style of punches makes him a wonder to behold anyway. Watching Jaa will remind you of seeing Jean-Claude Van Damme in “Bloodsport” for the very first time or Bruce Lee in just about anything. I’ll stop just shy of saying a star is born, but with this film a star could definitely be in the making.

The movie has a nice, simple plot. The head of a religious artifact—the Ong-Bak—has been stolen by a group of drug dealers. A promising young fighter and tree climber, Ting (Jaa), reluctantly ventures into Bangkok for the sole purpose of retrieving the head. On his own and with no experience outside his native village, Ting sets off on a mission with no intention of starting up trouble.

Ting meets up with his cousin Hum Lae and his girlfriend. With important information on the whereabouts of the drug dealers, Ting and the other two become reluctant partners. Ting finds himself in—where else?—an underground fight club. In a matter of a few seconds, the onlookers get a taste of Ting’s talent and ferocity as a fighter. The display stuns them silent. But again, Ting didn’t come here to be a fight club champion. He wants the head of Ong-Bak and he wants to go home.

It takes about a half hour before some high-octane action kicks in, but once it does it seems to never stop. We get some great chases through the streets of Bangkok where food carts get toppled over, cars crash, workers carry long sharp objects just as the hero is about to crash into them. We also get plenty more fight club action and a brutal brawl between good and evil to round it all out.

So, what’s with this guy? Why should you go see this movie with this silly plot? Jaa has the same go-for-broke approach to action as Chan and we need more of that. He seems to literally fly through these action pieces without the hint of a wire. The fight scenes have been beautifully choreographed without toning down the blood and violence. It’s a brutal movie in the most entertaining way. Vin Diesel can’t do this. Segal can’t do this. Snipes can’t do this. Proponents of wire-fu can’t do this. Jaa can and people like him remain vital to the action genre.

I stopped shy of calling him an overnight star mainly because he has yet to show what else he can do. I certainly don’t want to give the impression that he can’t carry a film or that he lacks a certain panache. He’s great at what he does, pure and simple, but he’s forced to play a stoic monk in the making. Can he express more or does the script cater to his range? Chan clearly found his niche by playing up the comedy within the action. Does Jaa fill a niche or simply a void? Time will tell, but for the time being it’s great to have him.

I also hope in the future he can hook up with a director who refuses to give us slow motion instant replays of the stunts Jaa can pull off. I can’t stand this. I never understood, even with John Woo movies, why one would cut to a slo-mo shot in the middle of a breathtaking action sequence. I know what I saw. I don’t need it TiVo’d for me. Other than that, director Prachya Pinkaew has crafted a nice piece of cinema and gives it a better treatment than it probably deserves. The opening sequence involving a tree climbing ceremony is quite beautiful. Just lose the slo-mo, please.

“Ong-Bak” is quite an action movie and certainly a must for fans of martial arts. It’s fast, funny and it serves the goods ten-fold. Jaa has a strong presence and it will be interesting to see if he can sustain an action movie career while broadening his range and ideas. In reality, the movie offers nothing new, but it’s been so long since we had a worthwhile “action hero,” it feels new all the same. Let’s enjoy his moment now before the American studios get a hold of him.

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