The plot of Ong-Bak is about as simple as you can get, even for a martial arts film. The welfare of a remote Thai village is protected by the Ong-Bak, an ancient statue of Buddha. One night, a group of thugs come into the temple and take off the statue’s head, and as a result, a curse descends on the village, Temple Of Doom style. Ting, an orphan who was raised in the temple, vows to find the head and return with it. And so, with just the clothes on his back and a handful of cash, this bumpkin sets off for the big city.
Thankfully, however, Ting also happens to be a master of the brutal art of Muay Thai kickboxing. Which, naturally, is going to come in very handy over the next 90 minutes or so for kicking epic proportions of ass.
When Ting arrives in the city, he hooks up with the estranged son of the village chief, a two-bit hustler whose name just so happens to be (I kid you not) Dirty Balls, and whose schemes (and name) provide much of the film’s comic relief. Dirty Balls’ partner in crime, a scrappy young girl with one of the shrillest voices in the world, also tags along, having taken a shine to the strong, silent villager.
Over the course of the movie, the trio mixes it up with drug dealers, archaeological thieves, gangsters, illegal boxing matches, and all other manner of underhanded types. Like I said, the movie’s plot is about as simple and predictable as it gets, serving only to provide a little breathing space between the fight scenes. Of course, the fight scenes are the real reason why anyone watches martial arts movies (and anyone who tells you otherwise, myself included, is lying through their teeth), but that’s triply so with Ong-Bak.
At this point, I want you to pause and ask yourself how much cinematic ass-kicking you can handle. Now be honest. If your only experience comes from Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal movies, or worse yet, Don “The Dragon” Wilson movies, you’re simply not ready for this one. Trust me.Those movies have the appearance of action, but it’s all fancy editing and camera tricks. Go rent a few Bruce Lee movies and then come back when you’re ready. If you’ve made it through early Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies, like Drunken Master 2 and Fist Of Legend, you’re getting closer. But even then, you’ll need to think long and hard before going into Ong-Bak.
You see, once Ong-Bak gets going, it’s brutal, plain and simple. Now, that word gets thrown around quite a bit when people are describing martial arts movies, but that’s really the only way to describe Ong-Bak: brutal. It’s been a long time since a movie made me cringe this much, and when I wasn’t doing that, I was picking my jaw up off the ground after witnesing the sheer physical brilliance on display throughout Ong-Bak.
There are at least 6 amazing action sequences throughout the movie, all of them showcases for the stunning talents of Phanom Yeerum (aka Tony Jaa), the stuntman-turned-actor who plays Ting. And as is the case with all of the greats, each one is crazier and more ballistic than the last.
When Ting is chased through the city by a bunch of thugs after getting caught up in one of Dirty Balls’ lousy schemes, he leaps over cars, slides under SUVs, jumps through loops of barbed wire with nary a scratch, and (literally) runs across the tops of the gangsters heads. In another scene, Ting is pulled into an illegal boxing match (again, thanks to Dirty Balls — gosh I like typing that) and takes on three opponents, each one crazier than the last. And in the final match, Ting takes out his opponent by kicking him through a plate glass window, only to kick him again, Double Dragon style, on the way down.
The movie’s final sequence, taking place in the villain’s underground lair, takes the cake, however. Picture the final battle in Drunken Master 2 on speed, steroids, and crystal meth all at once. Ting takes on 4 groups of opponents, his feet, fists, knees, and elbows in a whirlwind as he leaves his opponents with massive concussions, internal bleeding, and broken limbs.
There are times when I honestly don’t know how they got away with some of the blows that Ting lands. It looks like he actually connects everytime, along with a sickening crunch, thud, or other wince-inducing sound effect. In one of the film’s most mind-blowing stunts, he runs up a rockface, jumps off and over one guy, and slams a wooden board directly onto another guy’s head — thonk — in super-painful slow mo.
Directed by Prachya Pinkaew (who spent 4 years bringing the film to screen), the film is quite slick and stylish in places. Pinkaew obviously borrows from Jackie Chan’s films; some scenes lift directly from Police Story and Rumble in the Bronx, to name a few. But he’s also along the lines of Guy Ritchie (one scene in particular is reminiscent of Snatch’s famous boxing sequence, only far, far better), utilizing flashy camerawork, film speeds, and editing to make the film as attractive as possible. Except when it comes to the action sequences.
Just to make sure that you can get the full brunt of the stunts, the movie’s flashiest blows are replayed from as many as 3 or 4 angles, just so you can really see how they did it. As impossible as it is to believe at times, no wires or CGI were used at all in the movie’s fight scenes. In this day and age, where any beefcake can be turned into a gravity-defying, death-dealing kung fu master with wire tricks, it’s a rush to see the real deal once again. If you thought these sorts of mind-blowing acrobatics could exist only in The Matrix, then Ong-Bak is bound to be an awe-inspiring eye-opener.
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I've also written for Christ and Pop Culture, ScreenAnarchy, Filmwell, and Christian Research Journal. I pay the bills by creating beautiful user interfaces and websites for Firespring and Red Bicycle.