To say Ong Bak kicks ass is an understatement of gross proportions. To say it ranks among the best fight films made, and could change the genre, is more like it.
Thai martial arts phenom Panom Yeerum makes his film debut in Ong Bak, also the breakout for director Prachya Pinkaew. Yeerum (who also goes by the name Tony Jaa) shows promise of becoming the Thai version of Bruce Lee, the next Jackie Chan — he’s intense, highly skilled, muscular, acrobatic and charismatic. His onscreen presence is magnetic, though he barely speaks; acting not being his immediately obvious skill, he concentrates instead on the elocution of Thai kick-boxing — called Muay Thai, as well as Tae Kwon Do — evoking a beauty from the art form.
Said to have trained since age 12 to follow his hero, Bruce Lee, Yeerum does his own stunts without the help of wirework or computer manipulation, including jumping over and under cars, running over the bodies of an encroaching mob like he’s skipping up a flight of steps and putting down opponents with moves like you’ve never seen on film. Yeerum seems at times to fly through the air; Pinkaew uses instant replay to highlight Yeerum’s most spectacular stunts, and at times slows down and speeds up the film for dramatic effect.
The film looks old-fashioned, like Lee’s Hong Kong kung fu films, but is set in modern Bangkok. The plot is very light and familiar, but there’s no laughing or winking here. As far as story, it’s just a clean excuse to set up some really cool fight scenes.
Ting (Yeerum) lives in a small farming community in Thailand where town leaders discourage him from practicing his fighting skills, lest he kill somebody. When a punk steals the head of the town’s Buddha by decapitating the statue deity, called Ong Bak, the townspeople are devastated. They elect Ting to venture to the seedy streets of Bangkok to retrieve the Buddha head, which has been given to a crime boss.
Ting quickly becomes the country boy in the city and he’s given the runaround even by his former townsfolk. He’s forced to fight to stay alive and to pursue the Buddha head.
The film includes two chase scenes, one of which uses funky three-wheel Thai motorcars, and a great sound track. Thoroughly enjoyable from start to finish and a likely candidate for return-ticket-buyers, Ong Bak will be remembered as the debut of a cinematic martial arts badass who’s making a place onscreen for Muay Thai. Yeerum and Pinkaew are working on their second feature, so there’s plenty more to come.
In Thai with English subtitles. Showing at Star Southfield (25333 W. 12 Mile Rd., Southfield; 248-372-2222) and select theaters.
Lisa M. Collins writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].