It's been tough, lately, for martial arts fans. There's the once-amazing Jackie Chan, who--perhaps as a result of senility--is picking continually more insipid projects. (Around the World in 80 Days, anyone?) And there's Jet Li, who's doing better than Chan--he was in Hero, at least--but who still neglects Hong Kong-style action films in favor of shitty American ones. (Cradle 2 the Grave, anyone?) In short, action fans have recently been going to theaters more out of depressed loyalty than genuine excitement.
Cue Thailand's 29-year-old badass Tony Jaa, and his kickass film, Ong-Bak. Ong-Bak isn't about plot, or characters, or social significance. No, Ong-Bak is merely a calling card for Jaa--but it's a hell of an introduction.
The plot--which exists purely to get Jaa from one fight sequence to another--involves country boy Ting (Jaa) heading to Bangkok to recover a stolen statue. Once there, he meets up with ne'er-do-wells Humlae (Petchtai Wongkamlao) and Muay (Pumwaree Yodkamol), and starts fightin'. That's pretty much it.
And--here's where my meager writing skills break down--it's fucking impossible to put Jaa's astounding work into words. With no wires, no CG, and no stuntmen, Jaa's the real deal, whether he's jumping over (or sliding under) moving cars, scaling walls, diving through fire and glass, or beating down armies of unlucky thugs. Using Muay Thai--Thailand's fast, hard-hitting martial art--Jaa pulls moves off that you've never seen before.
There are other things to like about Ong-Bak, like its unintentionally hilarious villain, director Prachya Pinkaew's charming insistence on showing some of Jaa's stunts four or five times in a row, and Jaa's likable, laid-back vibe. And yeah, there are less great parts, too--like the annoying techno soundtrack, and the lagging first act. But if those quibbles will hold you up, don't bother going. Instead, watch Ong-Bak if you want to have a blast at a great kung fu flick, and be filled with a chop-socky sort of optimism--because as much fun as Ong-Bak is, I'm guessing it's nothing compared with what's yet to come from Jaa.