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"Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior"
(In subtitled Thai)
105 minutes | Rated: PG-13
LIMITED: Friday, February 11, 2005
Directed by Prachya Pinkaew
Starring Tony Jaa, Petchthai Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol, Rungrawee Borrijindakul, Chetwut Wacharakun
SMALL SCREEN SHRINKAGE: 15%
Tony Jaa has grace, style as a fighter, stunt man, but can do better than 'Ong-Bak'
Thai martial arts star Tony Jaa is being touted as the heir-apparent to Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li -- and in "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior," he certainly makes a mark for himself in the increasingly popular genre with refined, enthrallingly focused, breathtakingly acrobatic grace.
The first time he's shown on screen -- simply practicing his Muay Thai kung-fu style in precision exercises of extraordinary power and sharp, sudden movements -- its impossible to take your eyes off him.
When he actually begins fighting -- and climbing walls and sliding under cars and literally jumping through barbwire hoops -- "Ong-Bak" seems well on its way to becoming a truly great launching pad for an Asian fighter-actor who could take the world by storm.
By the third or fourth such episode of stunts and fierce chop-socky showdowns, however, a lack of creativity begins to drag the picture down.
The plot is simple and predictable, but that's to be expected -- nobody sees such movies for their insight, intelligence, character development or witty repartee. Jaa plays a young rural villager who ventures to the big city to retrieve a sacred Buddha head stolen from his community temple. He violently kicks the butts of a myriad of gangsters to get his hands on the relic, and that's pretty much all there is to it.
But as imaginative, awe-inspiring, and often brutal as Jaa's punches, kicks, swirls and stunts may be, it seems director Prachya Pinkaew can't get enough of certain repetitive moves (elbow to the head, elbow to the head, elbow to the head...). Neither does he trust the audience to appreciate the movie's feats of derring-do without beating us over the head with them. For each Jackie-Chan type exploit Jaa performs, the director seems bent on unspooling every inch of footage shot from every angle and at every speed -- even though showing off clearly isn't Jaa's style.
What's worse, Pinkaew's obsession with slow-motion often unwittingly betrays the pulled punches and near-miss kicks of the fight choreography, which is itself a problem at times since some moves have clearly been chosen for the way they look on screen, even though they are, in fact, laughably impractical. (So is the ridiculous rap song tacked on over the closing credits for the U.S. release.)
"Ong-Bak" has a raw, dirty, gritty visual style that mixes well with no-holds-barred beat-downs and do-it-yourself stunts. For martial arts aficionados, this may be a pivotal moment in the genre's evolution, and as such, a film not to be missed. But Jaa isn't what you'd call an actor, and "Ong-Bak" would just be an assembly-line B-movie import without his gift for this unique, sinuous new brand of chop-socky.