Directed by: Prachya Pinkaew || Produced by: Somsak Techaratanaprasert, Prachya Pinkaew
Screenplay by: Prachya Pinkaew, Panna Rittkrai, Suphachai Sittiaumponpan || Starring: Tony Jaa, Petchai Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol, Chattapong Pantana-Angkul, Suchao Pongwilai, Wannakit Sirioput
Music by: Atomix Clubbing Studio || Cinematography: Nattawut Kittikhun || Edited by: Thanat Sunsin, Thanapat Taweesuk || Country: Thailand || Language: Thai
Running Time: 106 minutes
2003 was the year the international community was first introduced to the then young, up-and-coming action star, Tony Jaa. In case you were wondering, no, that’s not his real name, but it sounds cool and he has plenty of athleticism and martial arts talent to back up his masculine moniker —- but acting prowess or a truly outstanding breakout movie, not so much. Most anybody who was into martial arts, Asian action movies, or had buddies who were into either in the early 2000s got wind of this Thai adventure-piece, which was hailed as the first coming of a new action icon in the vein of legends Jet Li, Jackie Chan, or Bruce Lee. Jaa’s fame proved to be short-lived, as neither of his two follow-ups to Ong Bak (2008, 2010) generated near as much hype as the original, and soon after Jaa temporarily left the acting business to spend time as a Buddhist monk. Jaa will make his Hollywood debut in the upcoming Furious 7 (2015) next spring, but during his time off exploring spirituality, the Muay Thai practitioner has largely been replaced by the next big thing in Iko Uwais with the international sensation of Gareth Evans’ Raid films (2011, 2014).
In any case, Jaa’s splash into the Asian action mainstream was notable for showcasing Jaa’s incredible athleticism. Ong Bak (OB) is frequently subtitled as “Muay Thai Warrior” in many Western releases, but to be honest, much of what’s displayed is nothing like any Muay Thai I’ve ever seen or practiced. OB isn’t so much about showcasing old-school brawling or efficient, technical brutality a la the pencak silat featured in The Raid films as it is about demonstrating the sheer athletic ability of its star. The film annoys me much the same way many other Asian martial arts movies do, in that they don’t show much interesting or applicable martial arts at all, instead opting for over-the-top acrobatics and silly visual spectacle to pull their limp stories from one contrived set-piece to the next. Much of Jaa’s work on-screen is more akin to break-dancing or some modernized form of Capoeira than a streetfighting style like Thai Boxing.
I’ll give some credit where it is due and admit that many of Jaa’s moves are impressive, particularly his acrobatic feats in multiple chase sequences; however, the fact of the matter is that this movie, like countless other action films made before or since, is heavily limited by its lack of physicality and bland, uninspired choreography. There are plenty of instances throughout OB where Jaa lays the smack down, but these climaxes have to slog through all the boring to ridiculous choreography that leads up to them. Director Prachya Pinkaew sticks with the martial arts filmmaking tradition of shooting every set-piece in wide-angle, locked on a tripod, which on the one hand stabilizes the action and emphasizes coherence, but on the other, accentuates the flat, over-choreographed, dance-like nature of the fight scenes.
As for the rest of the film (those non-punching/kicking/elbowing scenes), it’s decent action movie fare, but nothing special to write home about. The film is relatively plot-heavy given how extended and frequent its fight scenes are, but much of the story succumbs to its genre’s shortcomings. Jaa doesn’t have much acting chops to back up up his fight moves, and the main antagonist is flavorless and sports a vocal delivery more annoying than Tom Hardy’s Bane from The Dark Knight Rises (2012). The supporting cast of OB is surprisingly competent, though. More or less all of the character development in the movie is reserved for co-stars Petchtai Wongkamlao and Pumwaree Yodkamol as the wayward soul who finds redemption, and the spry, youthful female sidekick, respectively. Their arcs are what make the movie watchable outside the action scenes, and it’s odd considering how much more relatable they feel than Jaa himself. To the film’s credit, the movie stirs some emotional resonance despite its overdependence on so-so action scenes and a star who can’t act. However, like much of the rest of the action genre, the film finds itself caught in between the two Raid extremes of a bare-bones but effective plot (The Raid ), or a fully formed, fleshed out narrative with good actors who have both screen presence and good lines (Berandal ).
You’ll end up watching this movie sooner or later if you’re any kind of action fan, given the immense cult following around the film; frankly, I don’t think that following is warranted. It’s got an impressive athletic talent in Jaa, but his screen presence and more importantly the movie as a whole aren’t terribly impressive. There are some neat moments here and there, and the film is thankfully less heavy-handed and preachy than most Chinese/Hong Kong kung fu movies about historical figures (e.g. The Grandmaster , Hero ), but altogether Ong Bak is little more than a forgettable, if mildly entertaining Southeast Asian B-movie.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: As an action film, Ong Bak depends on the strength and pacing of its action scenes, and while the latter is adequate, the violence itself is mediocre. The movie forgoes most of the hard-nosed, efficient streetfighting style for which Muay Thai has become famous in favor of repetitive, over-the-top acrobatics and break-dance choreography that quickly overstay their welcome. Jaa is utterly uninspiring whenever he isn’t flipping through the air or spinning with his legs on fire. The villain is flat-lined, and the generic hip hop score that accompanies the Western version of the movie doesn’t do the action any favors.
— However… many of Jaa’s moves are impressive and several comedic punch lines are placed in the action scenes to great effect. The film at least tries for a decent plot, and its supporting characters are capable and well written.
—> ON THE FENCE
? I know I keep comparing every new action film to The Raid movies, but if you’d see them you’d know why. They’re the modern benchmark for what makes a great action film, and benchmarks are used for comparison.
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