Ong-Bak - The Thai Warrior Review
In the village of Nong Pradu, young Ting (Tony Jaa) proves himself the greatest of all the warriors in the village in a game high within the branches of a tree. As he trains in the art of Muay Thai in the temple that evening, he overhears a group of visitors offering to buy the statue there, one of Ong-Bak, which the elders of Nong Pradu refuse. But that night, a cry of panic sounds around the village - the head of Ong-Bak has been removed and stolen. Fearing that their crops will fail and their well will dry up, Ting
On arriving in Bangkok, Ting looks up Humlae (Petchthai Wongkamlao), an old friend who left Nong Pradu some years previously. But Humlae owes a lot of money to an small-time gangster and steals the napkin of money Ting brought with him to bet on an illegal streetfight. Demanding his money back, Ting gets involved in a fight against Pearl Harbour, flooring his opponent so quickly that he catches the eye of Komtuan (Suchao Pongwilai). As Ting discovers, Komtuan is not only behind the theft of the head of Ong-Bak but more than a dozen religious statues beside that of Nong Pradu. In the streetfights of Bangkok, Ting gets ever closer to Komtuan and to the head of Ong-Bak. Ready to die in his quest, Ting prepares for this deadliest of fights and one that will take him against an enemy who is without mercy, one who has declared himself God...
Every few years, a martial arts superstar rises above the froth of black belts with a reputation based on a promising display in an otherwise run-of-the-mill Far Eastern action flick. In the case of Tony Jaa, that film is this one, Ong-Bak - The Thai Warrior, and with the exception of the admittedly impressive Muay Thai action, this is a very ordinary thriller with a plot that one might charitably describe as paper-thin. Director Prachya Pinkaew structures his film in the manner of a videogame with their being some backstory used to set up a quest for the hero. If you've played any Playstation game from the last decade or so, or watched any Glen Larson or Stephen J Cannell production from the decade before that, you'll be familiar with the mechanics of the plot, which are straightforward, dull even. In this case, it's the head of a sacred statue but it could equally have been anything to force Ting's leaving of the village in which he was raised - a river dammed by unscrupulous developers, the kidnapping of the children of the village or a monster truck being driven by Michael Ironside in a threatening manner.
Unfortunately, the film is played without humour, certainly much less than is promised by a villain who speaks via an electronic voicebox and smokes through a hole in his neck. This seriousness is probably best shown by the hamfisted development of Humlae's character, who begins the film as a pill-popping chancer called George but who, by the film's end, George proudly calls himself Humlae of Brang Pradu and fights for the honour of his home village. He fights badly, being the kind of martial arts sidekick who's a bit overweight, sports a nasty haircut and struggles with the most basic of punches but through pride, Ting's quest receives the Muay Thai equivalent of a chorus of You'll Never Walk Alone from the Kop End and is reborn.
Of course, Ong-Bak isn't a film where the story matters very much, or even at all, and director Prachya Pinkaew builds up the action in the manner of an old-school brawler like Street Fighter II. Ting's defeat of Pearl Harbour is followed by his fighting Big Bear, who's as much an advertisement for the English in Bangkok as Gary Glitter, before he meets Mad Dog and the various henchmen thrown forward by Komtuan. The last of these, who Ting is first called upon to battle in an underground rope fight on the border between Thailand and Burma, where, "no one will care if anyone dies", is so over the top that he is almost superhuman. Just as American Ninja stretched its boss character thin with his firing of a wrist-mounted laser - and, admittedly, his weight, being rather tubby for a master ninja - so Ong-Bak has its villain pumping himself full of some chemical a bid to be transformed into the Mr Hyde of Muay Thai. A full seven syringes in the final fight, quite what this liquid is is never made clear. Distilled essence of Seagal? Mugwump jism? Irn-Bru?
But, like any martial arts flick, there are some fantastic moments, first of which is the streetfight between Ting and Pearl Harbour that's over so quickly you'll be hitting the rewind button to marvel at just how fast Tony Jaa moves. Clearly, Pinkaew realised this during editing and tends towards replaying a stunt two or three times during the action, which does slow things down somewhat. The least welcome interruption by the director in this respect is the replaying of several moments during a chase sequence, wherein we see Jaa leap through a hoop of barbed wire and underneath a vehicle three times each. This effect isn't any more welcome in the fight scenes, particularly during the many, many times that Jaa jumps upwards and lands on his knees on an opponent's chest but mentally strip these away and the fighting in Ong-Bak is of the highest order albeit never as bone-crunching as one might want.
The signs are bad when this begins to wobble during the pre-titles sequence and it doesn't get much better as the film progresses. With a soft, beige tone to the presentation of the film on DVD, this is a very ordinary looking feature and doesn't look to get any better on a more expensive home cinema system. There isn't much detail in the image, there is visible dirt and there's a slight movement in the frame. It's also very grainy and outside of the nighttime scenes in the arena, does look to have had much of its colour washed out.
As for the audio track, the default is the dubbed English Stereo track so one has to scroll up to get the original Thai DD5.1 and to select subtitles. The dub is simply terrible, as though the Radio 4 continuity announcers adopted awful American accents and had their efforts recorded so it was the Thai language track that I listened to and it's not bad, if a bit blustery and lacking range. There's obvious use of the rear channels but the fighting is clearly a couple of foley artists slapping sides of ham than any attempt at authenticity, lending the film a cheapness that it could have avoided. Finally, there's been talk of an original score and of an International mix but as this is the only version of the film that I have seen, I'm afraid that I will have to hand over to others who, via the comments below, may be able to enlighten us.
Live Tony Jaa Performance (2m33s): ...in front of an audience of French journalists and not in your front room, had you the space to host him. Appearing at what looks to be a film festival, this shows the star of Ong-Bak and stuntmen performing some impressively acrobatic martial arts.
The Movements of Muay Thai (1m41s): Eight, apparently, which seems like a very low number when you count the many, many more performed by Tony Jaa in this film. This may be short-changing the more adventurous of viewers, thereby saving them from accidents by being unable to try Muay Thai at home.
French Rap Music Video w/ Tony Jaa (4m02s): I like the way this describes itself as 'French Rap', thereby saying, with a nod and a wink to those in the know, that it will be shit. And so it proves with various rappers taking to the ring alongside a dazed looking Tony Jaa to confuse us with French rapping and the throwing of gang shapes that they clearly have less knowledge of than I do.
Making of Music Video (7m12s): Olivier Megaton, the director of this music video, is a rather unfortunate name for someone, like him, who's a little chunky. That, though, seems to be something of a trend in these features given that one of the rappers is named Tragedie, which might be ironic given that his actual rapping is so tragic but I don't think so. One rapper, possibly Reed the Deed, even wears a DEF2DEF T-shirt, which is a little like still saying, "Word!" now. Did the US issue a rap embargo against France shortly after the release of Straight Outta Compton, which they've been unable to move on from?
Selected B-Roll: This features three scenes from the film Taxi Chase (2m32), the Legs Ablaze Fight Sequence (2m05s) and the Arena Fight Sequence (1m18s). B-Roll, in this case, seems like a more technical way of saying behind-the-scenes, which is really all that these are.
Promo Video feat. The Rza (59s): Ooh...I Love You Rakeem! Never reaching the heights of the Gravediggaz releases, The Rza plumbs new depths as he gasps audibly when shown clips of Tony Jaa in action. As did I but not, I suspect, for the same reasons.
Finally, there are six Trailers (52s, 1m43s, 1m28s, 2m10s, 57s, 2m06s).
Unfortunately, I don't really want my martial arts movies to be quite as forgettable as this one. Ong-Bak comes alive late-on when there are a couple of spectacular fractures but that's just not enough. Granted much of the martial arts is spectacular but so too is gymnastics and much of Ong-Bak has that feel about it, that it's impractical and there for show rather than, in the case of Bruce Lee, for deadly force. But if that's your interest, there's plenty in Ong-Bak to enjoy. I prefer something a little less showy but with good word of mouth around Ong-Bak, I'm clearly in a minority.