Punch time
Kick-start your martial arts habit with Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior.

By Cheryl Eddy

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior
PHOTO COURTESY OF Magnolia Pictures
THOUGH HE'S BEING touted as the future of martial arts movies, Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior star Tony Jaa couldn't be more old-school. If you stuck Jaa in Hero's wire-fu world, he'd probably make use of one of his signature moves – dodging a group of foes by leaping into the air and scampering across their shoulders – and haul ass to someplace a little less art-directed. He'd have no chance opposite Chris Tucker in a buddy comedy; Jaa has barely 10 lines of dialogue in Ong-Bak, and he seems mighty comfortable letting his fists (and his feet, and especially his elbows) do the talking. But if you sent Jaa back in time to the Bruce Lee era, or the pre-Hollywood heydays of Jet Li and Jackie Chan, that's where he'd feel most at ease.

Ong-Bak was Thailand's top-grossing movie in 2003; folks lured by its international buzz could've caught it at a one-off Yerba Buena Center for the Arts screening last fall, or tracked down a DVD copy without much hassle. But the delay in reaching U.S. theaters may actually be a boon for Jaa and director Prachya Pinkaew, whose childhood dream was to make a martial arts movie. With the possible exception of Kill Bill, no martial arts flick in recent wide release has been able to resist some combination of the following: color-coordinated battle scenes, tree-dwelling assassins, a romantic subplot, a rapper or comedian in a supporting role, and C.G.-assisted aerial maneuvers mimeographed from The Matrix.

Ong-Bak has none of these things (well, besides the comedian, as you'll see). What it does have is Muay Thai, a specialized Thai martial arts style that's had a lower cinematic profile than most, fight scenes shot without wires or special effects, and stunts of the high-danger, cringe-in-your-seat-as-you-watch-'em variety. These two factors are reason enough to make Ong-Bak a must-see for action movie fans. If you blink, fear not: the most Jaa-dropping stunts are replayed from various angles two or three times, using a tactic ripped straight from the vintage Chan playbook.

As you might suspect, story and character development are pretty low on Ong-Bak's list of priorities. Jaa plays Ting, a lad raised by rural monks (accounting for his saintly desire to do good) and trained in the art of Muay Thai (accounting for his ability to drop-kick anyone who crosses his path). A staggering opening scene involving a tree-climbing competition instantly establishes that Ong-Bak is about brutal physicality first and foremost. So when Ting finds out someone has stolen the head off his village's sacred Buddha statue and sets off to Bangkok in pursuit, the audience is just waiting for him to unleash some "elephant face," "bolting horse," or any Muay Thai move on the thievin' bastards.

Of course, Ting's mentor – still guilty for accidentally killing an opponent back in the day – cautions his student not to use his Muay Thai skills, a plot device that allows Jaa to employ the aforementioned shoulder-stepping escape move, as well as engage in an incredible chase scene that has him leaping over moving cars, diving through rings of barbed wire, and cartwheeling between panes of glass. After Ting meets up with George (top Thai comic Petchthai Wongkamlao) – a former resident of Ting's village, currently in deep shit with a variety of vengeful types for his con-artist ways – the search for the Buddha head conveniently leads to an underground fight club controlled by local gangsters.

Mindful of his teacher's warning, the morally impeccable Ting initially refuses conflict; it's only when his opponent humiliates a woman in the crowd that he agrees to engage. The brawlers Ting encounters are strictly cartoons of the straight-to-video action movie variety, including a hulking white guy with Kenny G hair who goes by "Big Bear." Though Ting dispatches most challengers, including an entire gang of street toughs, with a swift elbow here and a flying foot there, he's impressively matched by one of his fight-club adversaries – a scowling cat from the "winner breaks all" school of combat who's not above ripping appliances off walls to gain an advantage.

Inevitably, Ting, George, and George's young sidekick (Pumwaree Yodkamol) run afoul of a ruthless mob boss (Khom Tuan) with vested interests in both the underground fights and, via an illegal antiques-dealing ring, the much-wanted Buddha head. The first half of Ong-Bak may drag in places, but it's more than worth it, followed as it is by a massive taxi chase through the streets of Bangkok, rampant steroid use, villains declaring "I am God!" explosions, magic herbs, bones a-poppin', bad karma, and a full range of nasty weapons (guns, saws) employed in an attempt to weaken Ting's blows.

Indeed, we're not talking fighting-as-a-metaphor-for-life here (if you want that, go see Million Dollar Baby); we're also clearly in a different solar system than Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Ong-Bak is blatantly commercial and silly at times, and some questionable editing leaves a few plot threads unresolved. Clearly, it has less-artistic aspirations than other recent Thai films to get U.S. releases: Last Life in the Universe, Blissfully Yours, even Beautiful Boxer. But Ong-Bak is great fun to watch, and much praise is due Jaa, director Pinkaew, and stunt choreographer Phanna Rithikrai ("the Bruce Lee of Thailand") for bringing some excitement back into martial arts movies – specifically, the kind of visceral thrills only safety-last daring can inspire. 'Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior' opens Fri/11 at Bay Area theaters.