Traditional chopsocky gets a shot in the arm with “Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior,” a muscular, no holds-barred actioner that could propel real-life martial artist Tony Jaa into a career beyond Thai borders. With little plot and a refreshing absence of high-tech effects, pic strongly recalls Hong Kong kung-fu movies of the late ’60s and ’70s, with physical grit, over-the-top heroics and inventive fight choreography providing the entertainment. After closing Bangkok fest, film hauled in a hunky 3 million admissions ($7 million) on nationwide release in February. Offshore sales have been brisk.
With no CGI or wirework in the action sequences, what you see is what you get — aside from the usual editing trickery. Jaa, whose real name is Panom Yeerum, studied a range of martial arts under Thailand’s equivalent of Bruce Lee, Phanna Rithikrai (who does stunt chores on “Ong-Bak). Jaa entered the industry as a stunt double, notably for Robin Shou on “Mortal Kombat.” On the evidence of his first starring role, Jaa’s no great actor but he has an old-style, focused intensity that’s marked the best Asian action stars of the past, including Lee.
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Main title sequence, showing Ting (Jaa) winning a tree-climbing contest in his native village of Nong Pradu, sets the tone of all-out derring-do that informs the whole movie, with some eyebrow-raising falls by the contestants. In true chopsocky fashion, Ting is an orphan raised by Buddhist monks who’s an expert at Muay Thai (Thai foot boxing), though his teacher isn’t sure he’s mastered the inner calm to use his skills for good.
However, when a former villager, Don (Wannakit Siriput), steals the head of a revered Buddhist statue, Ong-Bak, Ting is sent off to Bangkok to get it back from a ruthless crime boss, Khom Tuan (Sukhaaw Phongwilai). That’s it for plot.
On the streets of the big city, Ting meets George (Petchthai Wongkamlao, from “Killer Tattoo”), also from Nong Pradu, and streetwise teen Muay Lek (model-actress Pumwaree Yodkamol), whose elder sister, Ngek (Rungrawee Borrijindakul), is a hooker taking major abuse from the nasty Don. The three eventually form a team — the narrative is rather untidy here and could do with some reworking — as Ting goes through a series of fights and action sequences that test his mettle prior to an extended showdown in a huge mountain cavern.
Film really picks up at the 50-minute mark, with Ting taking a fight bet with a Caucasian that almost demolishes a joint, followed by an acrobatic chase through the streets with a battalion of tuk-tuks (motorized rickshaws) in which the vehicles take on almost human qualities. Following a regular Muay Thai contest with a Burmese champ, Ting powers on to confront Khom Tuan and his henchmen in a lengthy, show-stopping finale involving a lot of broken limbs.
Though the violence is often extreme, it’s also thoroughly cartoony, and in a genre, even in Asia, that’s become overwhelmed by digital f/x, there’s a real joy in seeing the back-to-basics action that “Ong-Bak” promotes. Camera positioning and editing are just right and, in a further harking back to earlier styles, Jaa’s climactic moves are often repeated two or three times from different angles — not only to show auds it’s really him but also to celebrate the grace and technique.
With Jaa in machine-like mode, character color comes from the rest of the cast, with vet Phongwilai especially entertaining as the wheelchair-bound villain who communicates via a throat amplifier. Yodkamol makes a sexy street chick who reforms, and Wongkamlao adds a more normal, human touch as the middle-aged George.
Print caught was bathed in an unattractive green hue that needs to be corrected for international release. Other tech credits are pro, with the action generally driven by a techno-rock music track.
Luc Besson’s Europa Corp. is handling distribution for the Americas, Australasia and most of Europe. Besson is also prepping a slightly shorter version for those markets, though original version unspooled at Toronto worked just fine with its target audience.