Luckily, Ong-Bak has, at long last, been widely released in the mighty You-Ess-Aay, and therefore my Martial Arts obligation to my wife could be completed while at the same time getting me one more review up on the old web site for a currently released flick.
However, Thailand's Ong-Bak isn't "new", in fact it first lit film festival screens back in the first month of 2003. This is notable because it feels very fresh and of-the-now, mainly because American Movies have just about reached the Martial Arts breaking point, then drop kicked it, Karate Chopped it and spat upon it for good measure. Ong-Bak is cool as an Irish Spring commercial, and refreshing as a Mint Julip on a hot Louisiana Afternoon, simply because this feels about as close as we can get to a real martial arts movie... meaning, this seems like a real martial arts master put into real circumstances and dealing with them in disciplined and unexpected ways that don't feel terribly scripted.
That is, at least at first. The main character of Ting (played by Panom Yeerum, credited here as Tony Jaa) has been superbly trained in the Thai Martial Art of Muay Thai... but admonished by his master never to use it! Why? Because it is so effortlessly lethal it can end a fight in an eye-blink. This works to the film's advantage early on as Ting, a true master, faces off with Bangkok's area Shoop Fighters and downs them like a vodka shot in one mere move. There are no long, drawn out and gratuitous fight scenes appearing only to pump the crowd full of hair-growing testosterone.
However, Ting has a quest, and apparently so does director Prachya Pinkaew. The head of Ong-bak, the Buddha of Ting's village, has been stolen by representatives of the Bangkok underworld, and Ting is on a mission to get it back. Pinkaew, on the other hand, is on a mission to make an internationally commercially viable martial arts film from Thailand (not exactly the first thought for a fight film).
After a time, Ting's quest puts him up against fighter after fighter in the Bangkok underground Fight Clubs, and those long, drawn out gratuitous scenes of Martial Artistry begin to flood in like beer from a broken keg. As Ting's mission gains him the support of Petchtai "Perttary" Wongkamlao's George and Pumwaree Yodkamol's confusingly named Muay, his mission also gains him chase scenes, Jackie Chan-style comedic battles (where anything that can be moved is a weapon), gravity-defying kicks, motorcycle races and even a Bangkok Taxi chase through the city that has to be seen to be believed. And each and every time Prachya Pinkaew pulls of an amazing scene in his little film, he immediately repeats the scene at least three times, usually in slow-motion in order to milk his money's worth until the scene is dry as a retired cow. What originally felt so spare and refreshing now feels... well, almost American.
But aside from these Tekken 3 Playstation moments, Ong-bak still manages to not just be some dumb Martial Arts quest movie. For one thing, the Martial Artistry is flawless and ultimately feels realistic. This Muay Thai is the best and most believable Martial Art I've seen since the death of Bruce Lee! There are no requests for you to swallow the concept of flying women with swords a-la Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon here.
From the exciting opening contest to the touching celebration of the finale, there is a deep-rooted sense of honor and respect for Thai culture, especially the rustic and rural villages with their own traditions and timelessness. Pinkaew graces us with some interesting tribal rituals and a real feel for the art and history of the corner of the world Ting grew up in. And while Ting is an undeniable master of his craft, we never are allowed to forget that he's also just a wide-eyed kid on his first trip to the big city of neon, corruption, drugs, theft and prostitution. Can such a kid really never use the only skill he actually has?
Further, the story of Ong-bak simply works, and one forgets that this is a modern-day gangster film from the East, and begins to revel in an "Art Film". It's easy to get into this plight of the innocent kid versus the big-bad-mob and simply root for this idealistic and altruistic "good guy" daredevil. All that and the martial arts are enough to turn any buttoned-down conservative into the Bull Ape that's just dying to get out and throw some crap around.
The best part is the final act which I shan't spoil for you... however, let me just say that it freely licenses the definition of "Poetic Justice" from the "Encyclopedia Ironica"!
If you're a fan of artistic movies and can handle some hard-boiled underworld imagery and enough violent martial arts to quell the Iraqi insurgency, this film might be for you! If you're a Martial Arts fan who can stand a little art with your martial, this film might be for you! If you're my wife, I'm sorry, sweetie, and I hope the red roses made your Valentine's Day a great one. Three and One Half Stars out of five for the not just Martial, but also Art movie called Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior. It might not be the greatest art of war movie ever made, but you could do a lot worse, and this surprising Thai export is a well-balanced must see. Now, if you'll excuse me... I have to go buy several boxes of chocolates and an embarrassing red satin kimono along with a bottle of my wife's favorite wine. "Marital Arts" indeed! Who talks like that? See you in the next reel, then, punchy!
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