Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior made a splash in the indie movie and martial arts communities when Magnolia Pictures distributed it stateside in limited release. For those of you asking, “What the heck is Ong-Bak?” here’s your chance to discover the biggest import from the Thai film industry since … well, ever.
Now available on DVD from Fox Home Entertainment, Ong-Bak is a 90-minute demo reel for its leading man’s jaw-dropping, death-defying stunts. Consider this not so much a movie but a calling card to international fame for its star, stuntman-turned-actor Tony Jaa. Although built on some of the worst screenwriting ever and filmed with inconsistent camerawork, the movie is worth a viewing solely for its star’s physical talents. Quite simply, Tony Jaa is the second coming of Jackie Chan—at least in the pure, no-tricks stunt-work sense.
Like all memorable foreign B-movies, Ong-Bak features our hero, Ting, who learns everything his master has to offer only to inexplicably promise never to use his unparalleled martial talents. However, Ting defies his master’s wishes after his tiny village’s titular relic, the head of a Buddha statue, gets stolen by Bangkok gangsters, whose only motivation for keeping the icon is to give him a reason to beat them down.
The best part of Ong-Bak is the star’s stunt-filled fights. He borrows liberally from Jackie Chan and sprinkles the action sequences with various tributes, including throwing peppers in his enemies’ eyes, plummeting 20 feet to the ground without strings or padding, and vaulting over tables, bikes and cars. Tony Jaa even throws a spiraling roundhouse kick with his pants engulfed in flames, a scene that’s reminiscent of the climax in The Legend of Drunken Master. Without wires or computer-generated effects, he launches his body into the air and runs on the shoulders of thugs. In another scene, the director replays from multiple angles a shot of him sliding in a split under a moving sport-utility vehicle.
Tony Jaa truly is a physical specimen. His spinning aerial kicks put to shame the footwork of the best taekwondo champion. His set pieces rival Jackie Chan’s superhuman stunts from the late ’80s to early ’90s. He has the muay Thai background, the gymnastics and the looks to be a big star. Unfortunately, in Ong-Bak he lacks a consistent director, a decent script and a fight choreographer who won’t rely solely on the actor to carry the action.
Thankfully, the DVD extras focus on Tony Jaa. There are outtakes, featurettes and the French premiere, where he performed many of his breathtaking stunts for a live audience. Despite Ong-Bak’s flaws, the bonus material and Jaa’s star power make it worth watching.