Mark Reviews Movies

ONG-BAK

2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Prachya Pinkaew

Cast: Tony Jaa, Perttary Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol, Suchao Pongwilai, Wannakit Sirioput

MPAA Rating:  (for sequences of strong violence, language, some drug use and sexuality)

Running Time: 1:45

Release Date: 2/11/05 (limited)



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Review by Mark Dujsik

To a degree, one can forgive Ong-Bak its lackadaisical story, since it is only an excuse to get its star into a series of stunt and fight sequences. This is nothing new; only the face of its leading man has changed. The new face is Tony Jaa, a former stuntman trained in multiple fields of the martial arts, and the movie is a showcase for his abilities in Muay Thai. Boasting a lack of special effects and wire work in creating the fights and stunts, Jaa impresses in his debut, dishing out punishing blows and leaping over and through various obstacles, but co-writer/director Prachya Pinkaew makes a far less rousing impression in his first feature. Even if Pinkaew and Panna Rittikrai's script is only interested in getting Jaa to fight multiple opponents, one has to wonder why Pinkaew has taken it upon himself to present the action sequences in such a repetitive, uninspiring approach. For every moment that inspires vocal awe, there are two or three moments that produce groans, and I'm not even taking into consideration the script-induced ones in that assessment. Eventually, the sight of Jaa acrobatic brutality grows weary, with only a few flashes of invention tossed in to keep it from becoming redundant.

Jaa plays Ting, a monk-in-training at Nong Pra-du temple, who has been trained in Muay Thai and warned against using it, since it is potentially deadly. The village is holding an annual celebration revolving around its Ong-Bak, the statue of Buddha kept safe in the temple to help ward off harmful elements. The only problem with that theory is that Don (Wannakit Sirioput), a former resident of the village, has gotten in with a bad crowd, and when he isn't able to convince a local resident to part with a desired relic, he and his goons steal the head of Ong-Bak ("Simpsons" did it!) out of spite and to please his crime lord boss Khom Tuan (Suchao Pongwilai). Now the villagers are distraught; the celebration is approaching. Bad things are sure to go down. Ting is their only hope, and he volunteers to travel to Bangkok to hunt down Don and retrieve Ong-Bak's head. Upon arriving in the city, he meets up with George (Perttary Wongkamlao), another native of Ting's village who left to avoid life as a monk and is now a hustler working with a young accomplice named Muay (Pumwaree Yodkamol). Ting wants George to help, but George has other things in mind.

The story hinges on coincidences. Ting just happens to come across George. Ting just happens to walk into the ring at an underground fight club to be forced to use his skills. Ting just happens to be there when George and Muay are being attacked by a gang. And so on. All of these result in action sequences that allow Jaa to shine. First, Ting, George, and Muay are chased by hordes of gang members, and as is customary, people conspicuously place obstacles in the way just so Ting can find his way over or through them. You see, Ting is a firm subscriber to the idea that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, even if that means he has to jump through a ring of barbed wire, through parallel sheets of plate glass, over a group of people using their shoulders for steps, or over cars. George is Ting's comic foil through all of this, almost but not quite able to replicate Ting's feats, and Pinkaew insures those feats are noticed.

To accomplish this, Pinkaew employs a few cheap editing tricks, primarily the usage of multiple instant replay moments. After a particularly notable stunt or blow, the shot repeats itself at least once from a different angle and in slow motion. On only one occasion is the gimmick effective, and that is after Jaa's leap through the barbed wire, when we can see that he does it while folding his body in half, a detail that is easily missed at regular camera speed. The rest of the time, the device only serves to diminish the flow of the sequences and the effect of the stunts. Jaa's speed is detrimentally undermined, and you can spot the stuntmen prepping themselves for the repeated kicks to the chest and elbows to the head. These repeated moves lose their effect after a while, and we have to wait for the moments when something new is added to the mix. The success of these moments varies. An extended chase sequence involving tuk-tuks (three-wheeled taxis) falls flat, but the brief image of Jaa with his legs literally ablaze while fighting makes you wonder what kind of painful outtakes will end up on the DVD.

And, of course, there's the script. Beyond the trivial plot, there's the problem with the translation, which uses clunky colloquial phrases, and, more injurious, nothing of substance to make Jaa more than an acrobatic fighter. Jaa certainly has the skills to become a martial arts star for the next generation, but Ong-Bak lacks any clear evidence if he has the personality. Now that we know he can jump over cars with the best of them, he should show us if there's more to him than a well-placed elbow to the head.

Copyright 2005 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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