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Ong-bak: The Thai Warrior Review

By Shawn McKenzie 02/11/2005

I have been hearing about this new “superstar” in the world of martial arts action heroes named Tony Jaa, a.k.a. Panom Yeerum.  He is supposed to be the next Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li.  I think that his appeal is that he is incorporating a style of fighting known as Muay Thai fighting, and it is probably the most brutal style of fighting I have seen in a long time.  From what I have been told, Muay Thai fighting is showcased every once in a while on ESPN, but since I rarely watch that channel, I wouldn’t have seen it.  This movie, Ong-bak: The Thai Warrior, is my first exposure to it, and it is impressive.  Unfortunately, if I weren’t already a hardcore movie geek, I would have never have heard of the movie.  In addition, unfortunately, aside from the impressive fighting choreography, the story itself didn’t hold my interest.

The rail thin story goes like this:  a young man from the village of Nong Pra-du in rural Thailand named Ting (Jaa) sets out to find the head of a Buddha statue named Ong-bak and housed in a temple.  Thieves working for Don (Wannakit Sirioput), a lieutenant in an organized crime syndicate, had cut it off and taken back to Bangkok.  The statue is supposed to have magical powers that keep the villagers safe from harm, though I didn’t notice any instances of any magic at all throughout the movie.  Ting’s only task is to go to Bangkok and retrieve the head.  Pra Kru (Woranard Tantipidok), a kindly monk who had made him promise that he would never use his skills to cause anyone harm, had trained Ting in the ancient system of Muay Thai, a.k.a. “Nine Body Weapons.”  Of course, as soon as Ting gets to Bangkok, he is forced to use those skills frequently.  Don had given the head to the gang boss Khom Tuan (Sukhaaw Pongwilai), a man who needs a wheelchair and a voice modulator, and fixes illegal club fights.  Ting hooks up with Hum Lae (Petchtai Wongkamlao), a.k.a. “George,” a.k.a. … well, it’s not a flattering name…to recover the head.  George was a former resident from Ting’s village who was sent to Bangkok to get an education, but instead makes money hustling people and gambling.  He changed his name to George, I’m guessing, so he could fit in with the people in Bangkok, and because his nickname was the unflattering name I won’t mention in this review.  His assistant hustler is Muay Lek (Pumwaree Yodkamol), a girl from the wild streets of Bangkok.  Her older sister, Ngek (Rungrawee Borrijindakul), is the girlfriend of Don, and is a junkie and a drug courier.  Both George and Muay Lek constantly run into a street punk named Peng (Chetwut Wacharakun) whom George gets the better of in the end.  George tells Ting that he can help find the head, and then he cons Ting into participating in some of the club fights.  He has Ting fight a huge Australian named Big Bear (Nick Kara) and two other fighters, including one that just smashes stuff up around him.  Tuan makes a deal with Ting to a throw a fight between him and a Burmese boxer named Saming (Chatthapong Pantanaunkul) for the return of the head.  He does just that, and Tuan betrays him.  Ting is forced to have to confront Tuan in a cave located on the border of Thailand and Burma to get the head back.

The story was just an excuse for a lot of fight scenes, which is okay.  Unlike the romantic elements and the drama in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, this one didn’t have to have stellar writing.  The problem for me though is that a good story would have made it excel over the top.  The fighting was exciting, but the story was boring.

The acting wasn’t all that hot either.  Jaa is okay, but he isn’t going to be getting any awards for his acting skills anytime soon.  Pongwilai is your clichéd bad guy, and Wongkamlao is the comic relief in a movie filled with characters who all have no sense of humor.

As I’ve already mentioned in this review before, the fighting is brutal.  Unlike the somewhat dance-like acrobatic style of Chan, the Muay Thai fighting style might make some people actually cover their faces while watching.  Even though it is obviously done with sound effects, there is lots of bone crunching and limb mangling in the movie, including one really gross scene where Jaa elbows the skull of a jacked up Saming.  I had to admit that it was fun to watch though.

Ong-bak: The Thai Warrior was written (with Panna Rittikrai) and directed by Prachya Pinkaew.  It was released in 2003 in countries in Asia and became a smash hit.  As I said before, I wouldn’t have heard of the movie unless I was a movie geek.  I just saw the TV trailer for the first time on MTV this week, but before, I had never heard of it.  Maybe Jaa will be the “next big thing,” or maybe Muay Thai boxing will sweep the nation, but I think that it will be just a matter of “wait-and-see” before that happens.


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