Since he was a young boy, Ting (Tony Jaa) has been trained in the art of Muay Thai (Thai boxing) but he has sworn never to use these techniques to bring harm to others. Ting is finally forced into action when Don (Wannakit Siriput) steals the head of the Buddha (Ong Bak) that has brought good luck to his village of Nong Pra-du, in the hope of appeasing the gangster boss Khom Tuan (Sukhaaw Phongwilai). Ting's quest takes him to Bangkok, where he meets and forms an uneasy bond with George (Petchthai Wonkamiao) a cousin from his village, who has adopted the city way of life. Ting is pushed into illegal fights run by gambling bosses, and his quest to bring the head back for Ong Bak seems destined to fail.
Review by Jake Wilson:
In its publicity material Ong Bak is touted as a proudly no-frills blockbuster, dispensing with computer graphics, hidden wires and similar flim-flam in order to concentrate on straight-down-the-line action. This is accurate enough, though there's no comparable ban on fast cutting or slow motion, and the absence of stunt doubles can't always be verified. Nor is the filmmaking crude or ad hoc in the manner of Hong Kong quickies: Prachya Pinkaew and his team show a fair amount of knowhow in interludes like an elliptical depiction of an evening of high-stakes gambling, done nearly all in close-up.
But in the end, the only life or point to this film is in its fight sequences. And while I'm not competent to judge the niceties of technique, Thai boxing doesn't look to me like the subtlest of martial arts: acrobatics and mind games take second place to violent blows straightforwardly delivered by knees or elbows. I'd venture that lovers of sheer grunt will have a pretty good time, though nothing really caught my imagination beyond the opening sequence, which depicts an apparently traditional competition where costumed men scurry up a tree like monkeys, then jostle and throw each other to the ground. Nothing which follows is as fetchingly exotic as that, and the comedy chase through city alleyways is a fizzer, awkwardly contrived with gags so old they'd make Jackie Chan blush.
If I can say this without being condescending, to a cultural outsider the film's most striking quality is its oddly archaic mixture of brutality and innocence, founded in a moralistic contrast between city and village straight out of silent-film melodrama. Tony Jaa is so pure an emblem of youth and goodness he barely has a personality to call his own, while the villains are associated with decadent urban modernity - the gangster boss with his electronic voicebox, and the drug-dealing henchman who rubs cocaine in the face of his masochistic girlfriend. Most tellingly of all, Ting's quest to recover the head of his village's magical Buddha is treated without a hint of distance or irony - a point of view unimaginably distant from the likes of the Indiana Jones saga, where the notion of a hero who searches for holy relics is treated on the surface as nothing more than a camp joke.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
A simple story with no subtext and no real moral message about simplified characters in a rural/urban cultural conflict serves to highlight the film's single most effective element: Tony Jaa, the much hyped new Thai martial arts cinematic whirling dervish. Sadly the same simplified elements make the film little more than a series of stunt sequences, which we begin to deconstruct by the time the climactic final confrontation takes place in a cave on the Thai/Burmese border.
Indeed, the film reminds me of those B movies of yore in which the hero slips under the descending roller door just in time, and the baddies melt away once they're knocked down. And they are certainly knocked down in what is often bloody and quite violent battles. Unlike in those B movies, though, Prachya Pinkaew uses multi camera set up some for many of the fight sequences, so we can see them from three different angles; no remote necessary.
The Jackie Chan-ish stunts include Ting leaping over cars, sliding under cars, flying through barbed wire loops and across food stalls with hot cooking oil, or jumping sideways between two plates of glass carried by tradesmen, all while being chased. That's on foot. Then there is the extended tuk-tuk chase (cheaper than cars) which demolishes half of the Bangkok fleet.
Tony Jaa is indeed splendidly martial in his fighting arts, but his character has the fewest lines in the film, probably because he was trained as a Muay Thai fighter, not a method actor. The best performance in the film is by the boyishly pretty Pumwaree Yodkamol as Muay Lek, who we instantly expect to become the love interest for our dashing young hero - only to discover that there is no love interest for this Ting. She is a fresh and natural talent with plenty of charisma and on screen zing, and it's a pity she is not used more in the story.
Probably of interest to those who really enjoy or study martial arts, Ong Bak may be the precursor of better roles for Tony Jaa. Let's hope.
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CAST: Tony Jaa, Petchthai Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol, Rungrawee Borrijindakul, Chetwut Wacharakun, Suchao Pongwilai
PRODUCER: Prachya Pinkaew, Sukanya Vongsthapat
DIRECTOR: Prachya Pinkaew
SCRIPT: Prachya Pinkaew, Panna Rittikrai
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Nattawut Kittikhun
EDITOR: Thanat Sunsin, Thanapat Taweesuk
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Arkadech Kaewkotara
RUNNING TIME: 104 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Madman
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 10, 2005