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Ong-bak (2003)

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (UK), Daredevil (USA), Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (Singapore: English title), Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (International: English title)

Rating: 6/10

Running Time: 105 minutes

US Certificate: PG-13 UK Certificate: 18

Once every twenty-four years, the rustic village of Nong Pradu celebrates the statue of their patron Buddha, 'Ong-Bak' – so when the statue's head is stolen just days before the festival is due to commence, the orphan Ting (Tony Jaa), raised by the temple priest in the art of Muay Thai, sets off for Bangkok to retrieve it. Joining forces with villager-turned-city-hustler George (Petchtai Wongkamlao) and the streetsmart Muay (Pumwaree Yodkamol), Ting finds himself forced into violent conflict with evil Komtuan (Suchoa Pongvilai) and his cohort of illegal street fighters, in a bid to reclaim Thai's historic legacy from the grip of unholy gangsters, foreign corruption, and modernity itself.

Amidst all the frenzied cutting and computer-enhanced artifice of today's martial arts movies, 'Ong-Bak' bursts onto the scene as a welcome, if bruised and battered, throwback to the 1970s. There are no hidden wires, no CGI, no stunt doubles, just lengthy set-pieces where the characters, and sometimes the actors too, take an almighty beating while performing outrageous (and seriously dangerous) stuntwork. Once Ting has been seen in action ferociously pummeling his opponents with not just fists and feet, but also elbows and knees, it is no longer a mystery why the kickboxing art of Muay Thai is known as the 'science of eight limbs' – and in case any nuance of his punishing prowess has been missed, wince-making highlights are replayed in slow motion from multiple camera angles, in the powerpunch equivalent of what pornographers call 'the money shot'. Believe me, when Muay Thai is declared to be “powerful but not harmful, it's worth watching” in the hilarious song that accompanies the final credits, the first and last claims of the lyrics are far easier to swallow than that middle bit.

Yet strangely at odds with all this bone-crushing violence is the film's fairtyale morality, grafting wholesale the complex oppositions of rural vs. urban, devout vs. secular, old vs. new, and native vs. foreign, onto a far more simplistic battle between the forces of good and evil. As pious Ting defends Thai honour and religion, all his opponents are either bestial Westerners (and one Japanese), or even worse the neighbouring Burmese, or (very occasionally) locals who have fallen under their malign influence, so that the film's underlying ideology is at best a deeply conservative nationalism, and at worst a more straightforward xenophobia. Still, this should not prove too distracting, when there is the relentless entertainment of Ting running over the heads of his pursuers, leaping headfirst through rings of barbed wire, kicking foes with his legs literally on fire, or jumping from one moving 'tuk-tuk' (Bangkok's ubiquitous three-wheeled taxis) to another in an explosive chase sequence.

The plot of 'Ong-Bak' is a disposable string of clichés designed merely to connect one set-piece to the next, Tony Jaa is no great shakes as an actor, and the comic relief provided by popular Thai TV star Petchtai Wongkamlao is likely to amuse only the most die-hard fans of Hong Kong-style humour – but all these shortcomings can be excused, or at least ignored, once Jaa starts doing his Muay Thai thing, so awesome is his raw physicality. On the walls that form the background to some of his fights, bold graffiti are clearly visible reading “Hi Spielberg, let's do it together” and “Hi Luc Besson, we are waiting for you” – and that says it all for 'Ong-Bak'. For it is less a polished piece of filmmaking than an ambitious calling card – and if the right talent comes along to manage Jaa's undoubted potential, then the writing is truly on the wall for his place in the pantheon of martial arts icons.

It's Got: Ridiculously dangerous stunts, amazingly physical action, and a strange, apparently irony-free blend of religious piety and punishing ultraviolence.

It Needs: Some acting talent to back up its vibrant enthusiasm - and a little more sophistication to its black-and-white morality.


What it lacks in acting it more than makes up for in bone-crunching, effects-free physicality.