Tuesday, October 19, 2004


* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 17 October 2004 at the Brattle Theater (Boston Fantastic Film Festival)

A convenient rule of thumb for grading action movies is that when an actor is willing to light his clothing on fire in order to create an exciting scene, it's a good sign. It shows a certain amount of dedication that you don't see in a lot of American movies, where action stars are seldom even willing to light their stuntmen on fire, which generally carries through to the other action scenes.

There's a plot to this movie, but it's kind of silly and unimportant: A Bangkok drug dealer has stolen the head of "Ong-bak", a small Thai village's Buddha statue that is involved in a ceremony that only takes place every 24 years and there's bad luck if it's missed. Fortunately, the world's stupidest drug dealer actually left his name and contact information with one of the villagers, so Ting, a local man studying to be a monk (and who is also skilled at Muay Thai boxing), volunteers to go to the city to find it. Aside from his cousin Hum Lae (calling himself "George") and Hum Lae's girlfriend, Bangkok also contains an assortment of tough guys standing between Ting and his statue. Ting must - reluctantly! - kick their butts.

And, oh, how he does. He kicks their butts in a club frequented by local crime lords that features no-rules boxing, on the street, in a cave, wherever local goons can be found. Tony Jaa, who plays Ting, is amazingly athletic and ridiculously skilled, and as with many of the other great martial arts stars, his action scenes are shot medium distance and without much cutting so that you can see, yeah, he did in fact just do that. A lot of blows are followed up with instant replay from another angle as if to assure you that, nope, there's no trick photography going on. Jaa doesn't get a lot of dialogue or character development to showcase any acting chops - that's left to the supporting/comic relief characters. He is handsome and doesn't seem to be reading off cue cards, though, so there's not much reason to bet against him becoming a movie star, at least in martial arts circles.

There are several good action scenes, although my favorite is when a gang of thugs Hum Lae has annoyed chases Ting and his cousing through the street. This being a martial-arts movie, the street is crowded to overflowing with street merchants, open-air eateries, cars, animals, deliveries being made (including a large loop of barbed wire, highly breakable glass, a basketful of sharp objects, and the like). Jaa leaps over cars, onto tables, through the loop of barbed wire. He runs on top of people's heads, and then when surrounded drops three or four goons before starting back up. Hum Lae can't come close to keeping up, but he appears to get the upper hand on his pursuers for a moment... Until the knife saleswoman shows up. The whole thing is a fast-paced, funny sequence that just works as pure entertainment.

Another thing writer/director Prachya Pinkaew pulls off well is escalating the stakes. Yes, a lot of the earlier fight scenes are funny, Jackie Chan-style romps (including a fun sequence involving an armada of extremely unstable three-wheeled taxis), but by the end, bones are being broken as the fights continue in deadly earnest. Nice job of doing it without there seeming to be much of a discontinuity.

Ong-Bak is action, pure and simple. Come and be amazed at what this guy can do.

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