Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Producer: Prachya Pinkaew, Somsak Techaratanaprasert
Cast: Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol, Chattapong Pantana-Angkul, Pumwaree Yodkamol, Suchao Pongwilai, Wannakit Sirioput, Chumphorn Thepphithak, Rungrawee Barijindakul, Cheathavuth Watcharakhun, Dan Chupong, Panna Rittikrai
Running Time: 105 min.
I’m going to start this review out by saying that I might seem a bit biased when discussing this movie because I am a huge Jackie Chan fan, and have seen many of his old Hong Kong films from the 70’s and 80’s (which were his best ones also).
Ting, played by Tony Jaa, escapes from his village and goes to the big city in order to find and bring back the head of the “Ong Bak” statue which was stolen from his hometown. That’s about all the story there is. Ting does meet up with another person who used to belong to his village and the former villager’s partner-in-crime/con artist pal, but their main use in the film is to provide comic relief when necessary.
The movie does start out a big slow and does drag in certain places, but the fight scenes are so incredible that it’s easy to forgive those flaws for the most part. What really took me out of the film was my constant flashbacks of Jackie Chan’s 1986 Indiana Jones meets kung fu flick, Armour of God, especially during the last 30 minutes or so of the film.
In both Ong Bak and Armour of God, the main characters are on a mission to capture an important relic that will bring some joy to them if found, with the rewards being either money or honor. Both films also deal with kidnappings and both end in similiar looking locations, so you can clearly see that Ong Bak did take a note from Armour of God and various other Chan flicks, in its use of slapstick humor mixed with acrobatic action.
Though I was entertained by those elements in both Ong Bak and Chan’s films, the full amount of enjoyment I could have experienced during the movie was taken away a bit from a persistent feeling of deja vu. Also with the double-takes/replays and such used throughout the film: it almost felt like I was watching a martial arts version of Wrestling where Tony Jaa would come crashing down on a villain in slo-mo and the audience would go wild every time he did something like that, even if it wasn’t always necessarily memorable.
I shouldn’t be too negative though, because I did in fact have a fun time while watching Ong Bak for a couple of reasons. While I couldn’t help but compare the film to JC’s older HK flicks, one of the main differences between Ong Bak and those films is that Tony Jaa does get down and dirty very often, and isn’t one to f*ck around. My favorite scene in the film was a 15-20 minute sequence with Jaa’s character going up against different opponents in an underground fight club, with him beating them all pretty senselessly. Jaa is a wonder to watch while in action. He’s super fast, extremely tough, and never backs down while in a brawl. And like I mentioned previously, the movie is a lot of fun and doesn’t really take itself too seriously. The humor doesn’t always work, but it never gets boring.
So I’ll end this review by saying that if you’re a guy like me who has seen a good deal of martial arts/Jackie Chan flicks, then you’ll have a nice time watching this film but you might not see God or anything like that by the time everything is over. But if you’re a newcomer in the kung fu/martial arts scene and haven’t popped your cherry yet when it comes to that kind of stuff, you’ll really enjoy this flick.
Jesse’s Rating: 7.5/10
History shows us that usually, when a country decides that they want to boost their cinematic output and stir crowd appeal, the filmmakers usually turn to historic or traditional motives. Western movies were the first succesful genre in Hollywood, and the world war two and prohibition era mobster epics also had their run on the big screen. The Chinese glorified their mythical heroes and their martial arts skills such as kung-fu and such. The Japanese turned to the tradition of samurai and the honour of the yakuza, the Yugoslavs rebuilt their film industry thanks to the huge popularity of “partizan” film (world war two stories about guerilla liberation movement), and the Italians exploited their great history of zombies, demons and the living dead.
Okay, scratch that last bit. But what I’m getting to is, Thailand has always been an also-ran in the Asian cinema. While China, Hong Kong, Japan and recently Korea grabbed the headlines, Thai filmmakers produced a couple of long historical epics such as Suriyothai which garnered critical, but then again not much commercial appeal out here west. So, unable to flog us their historical heritage, the crafty people of Thailand decided to give another authentical Thai thing a celluloid work-out.
The deadly martial art of Muay-Thai.
And may lightning strike me (or at least someone responsible for Asian film distribution western of Istanbul) if they don’t cash in on this one, because Ong-Bak, the debut full-length feature of the director Prachya Pinkaew, is, mark my words here , definitely the next big thing in the turbulent world of the martial arts action cinema.
Ong-Bak, casually billed as The Daredevil (not to be confused with Frank Miller’s comic book creation) and Muay Thai Warrior during its rare festival entries, is a story of a young Buddhist monk trainee who embarks on a conquest to retrieve the stolen head of the Buddha idol from his village. The story, as you can somewhat feel, does not evolve or develop one inch away from the sentence above, but as soon as the knees and elbows start flying, you pretty much forget that there was a plot in the first place. What happens when our hero called Ai Ting (played by stuntman extraordinaire Phanom Yeerum) enters the city of Bangkok can be described by only two words : jaw-dropping.
To elaborate… Ting’s “contact” in the city is Ai Yod, otherwise known as Ai Fum (or Hum ?) Lae, the country kid who supposedly made it big in the city (he actually gets by by hustling mobsters on bike racing and dealing drugs smalltime). Ai Yod, played by Perttary Wongkamlao, is reluctant to help Ai Ting with his task, but accepts eventually, thinking he can manipulate the whole gig into something monetary for him. Before you know it, Ai Ting is involved into some intense underground fighting matches, an escape sequence through downtown Bangkok which puts any Hollywood film to shame, a sort of homage to Blues Brothers’ hilarious car chase involving Thai three-wheeled taxis called “tuk tuks” (I hope, I’m not good on spoken Thai comprehension) and more high octane action joy. Sure, there’s a subplot involving Ai Yod’s female friend and her sister who is a hopeless junkie… but who cares? We’re here to see the gravity-defying stunts and bone-breaking martial arts, Goddamnit!
And does the action deliver. Yeerum? a real life Muay Thai expert? is the real deal. Earlier, in my review for Kiss of the Dragon, I mentioned Jet Li is the first since Bruce Lee to have that big screen poise and panache, the dominant martial artist in cinema. Well I changed my mind. Scratch Jet Li. The aptly named Phanom (Phanom, Phenom, geddit ?) puts all the ancient kung fu masters to shame with his unique combination of freak athleticism and martial art skill. The first is on show during the aforementioned chase sequence ? I won’t give away much, but there’s some serious circus stuff going on right there, and the latter… well, during most of the film.
Muay Thai is a skill which heavily relies on usage of knees and elbows, and Yeerum is no different – his most devastating attacks involve exactly elbows, and a couple of his trademark “flying elbows” will definitely leave any viewer breathless. Thanks to the great fighting choreography and the amount of skill Yeerum and co. possess, almost every fight scene is a standout, but the second string of fights in the seedy brawling joint and the thrilling climax are the ones to remember. To reinforce the sheer madness of some of Yeerum’s moves, the director implemented a “he-did-WHAT-?!” instant replay which will show you his latest amazing move from another angle. Neat trick, but sometimes overused, and can be annoying as well.
It’s time to shine back at that first paragraph which deals with patriotic cinema tastes. Namely, the movie is superbly tailored to the Thai mass audiences, and it’s not shy to show us that. First, Ai Ting seems to have a thing for beating up on loud-mouthed foreigners. Second, he’s a good Thai country boy, Buddhist and all. Third, the main villain turns out to be a guy who is busy black-marketing big Buddha statues, which is (probably) as horrible a crime as one can imagine. Fourth, the soundtrack is a stirring mix of modern electronic beats and traditional Thai music used in Muay Thai fighting arenas.
Director Pinkaew thus manages to balance the box office appeal in between success in his homeland and make a respectful action movie which has success potential overseas, which was usually not the case with commercial Japanese filmmakers, who were often accused of being “too western” by the domestic critics (take Akira Kurosawa for one).
A word about acting… no one in this crowd will ever get an Oscar nomination, but there are some solid supporting roles to be seen. Wongkamlao is a riot as the charming weasel Ai Yod (his character also winds up with a patriotic twist, see it for yourself), and his friend Muay (the girl I don’t know the name of ) does an OK job as well. Yeerum himself is pretty much a shy, reclusive figure with a mousey voice of sorts, but luckily it’s usually his limbs (and the pointy ends of them) who do the talking in this one. I ought to credit the director and the whole crew here as well, because Ong-Bak absolutely does not look cheap ? it is slick and well produced, and is well up to Hollywood standards when it comes to direction and production values. Also, have I mentioned the film doesn’t use any wires? No? Well, be prepared – all the action and flying in this film is for real, no crappy wires, which, at least in my opinion, tend to ruin a good film.
And for all the praise, the availability of this film is still spotty. Ong-Bak is a cult classic in file sharing circles, but other than that it got no distribution outside of Asia as of yet. You can order the Thai region 3 DVD somewhere online (use Google you lazy sods), but it has no English subs. Then again, not that you need them anyway ? I initially watched this film without any subs, and you can follow the plot pretty clearly without understanding of single word of Thai language. Last news is that Luc Besson, of Nikita and Fifth Element fame, clinched the rights for the European release and that the movie will be premiered in France in April. No words on the US release as of yet, but I hope for the sake of all US cinema fans that the Miramax will stay far and away from this one.
So to round this review up, I’d really love to give this film a grade in the A level, but the sub par (well, make that “non-existent”) story and script will limit it to nine out of ten in our honourable City on Fire rating.
Well nah. Nine and a half. The action is that good. Who needs script, anyway?
Reviewer’s Note : I am absolutely not sure about the names of the actors and if I matched the character and actor names good. The all-round information on the net about this is very vague as of now ? unless you can speak Thai, which I can’t. Sorry for inconvenience. I am sure the main guy IS Phanom Yeerum though.
Mairosu’s Rating: 9.5/10