Ain't That a Kick in the Head?
Firmly semi-mainstreamed for some time, updated varieties of martial arts films now come glossily packaged from Asia and from a Hollywood where seemingly every third action star is guy-wire special effected up walls, somersaults adversaries and butterfly floats between bee-sting karate-ish chops. Of late seeking a cinema market beyond its borders, Thailand, too, now offers its own take, based on Muay Thai, “Nine Body Weapons,” the royal war art already revered when first written about in 1411, so lethal that its purest forms were banned a century ago, and surviving as today’s modified kick boxing which brings into offensive play just about every hard or pointy body part.
Story writer-producer-director (and Director of the nation’s Film Association) Prachya Pinkaew’s Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior is misleadingly titled. The “Ong-Bak” is not a warrior, or even a man, but the benignly smiling Buddha image whose head is stolen from rural Nong Pradu’s shrine and presented to a city crime kingpin, while the warrior is the local lad entrusted to interrupt his monkish studies and travel to Bangkok’s seamy side to recover the talisman and alleviate the resultant village drought. The unsmiling country boy is directed to hook up with the town headman’s son, Hum Lae (TV comedian Petchthai Wongkamlao), already settled in the capital and theoretically studying, but who in actuality is himself in need of rescue and rehabilitation work.
The film stock is darkish and not impressive, though orphan hero Ting (Tony Jaa [Panom Yee-rum]) first appears in an overexposed opening scene, winning applause in besting other white-dust-covered young men scampering up a banyan tree to retrieve a game flag. Shirtless that night in a courtyard, he names and demonstrates the fighting moves he has perfected but which monk master Pra Kru (Woranard Tantipidok) has instructed not be used. (Awkwardly, after all these years an observer must explain that, using these same techniques, the monk killed his first opponent.)
Rebuffed in attempts to buy an amulet being saved against Hum Lae’s ordination and return, Don (Wannakit Siriput), another villager relocated to the metropolis, steals the Buddha head in spite, and Ting is given the neighbors’ small savings for his journey of recovery, as the hamlet’s devotional festival, held at twenty-four-year intervals, is a scant week away. As one would expect, things are not so easy: Don is involved with drugs and traffickers; renamed George, dyed-blond Hum Lae is an unsuccessful petty hustler in debt and leagued in diverse scams with Don’s girlfriend’s teenage sister Muay Lek (engineering student Pumwaree Yodkamol, in her film début); and the bronze head is being held for sinister purposes by gang boss Khom Tuan (Sukhaaw Phangwilal), who rules from a wheelchair, speaks through a voice-box apparatus, blows smoke out an open neck-hole, fixes the brutal illegal club fights and suffers from a serious “I am God” complex.
A smash hit at home and generating decent response here, Ong-Bak is better than many another martial arts flick but suffers from flat (admittedly, dubbed) acting and a touted “unique superstar” of the “Muscles from Brussels” Van Damme school lacking Bruce Lee’s impish charisma and even overhyped Jackie Chan’s comic bent. But the film has redeeming qualities, not least of which are the several betting fights against opponents like hairy Big Bear (Nick Kara) and a multiple-needle-injecting Burmese beast as well as just plain thugs, all the better for being “performed ‘for real,’ without the aid of special effects and camera tricks.” And think James Bond sans Q’s gadgets, with dirt bikes and tuk-tuks substituted for Astin-Martins, for an idea of the appropriate low-budget chase sequences. Crucial shots repeated three times, from different angles, DP Natawut Kittikun’s camera captures rhythmic grace in the not-overdone fight scenes, which end quickly with twin elbows to the top of an opponent’s cranium.
In the end, of course, there will be regenerative atonement for George and, of another kind, for Muay Lek, a stone Buddha-head hoist-with-his-own-petar for the bad guy, and expected victory for Ting and rural values. The metropolis will remain in sweaty darkness and danger, but humble people of the earth rejoice in light and innocent celebration. And those viewers who like refreshingly uncluttered actioners will find reward, too.
(Released by Magnolia Pictures and rated "R" for sequences of strong violence, language, some drug use and sensuality.)