Given the pan-Asian dominance of Hong Kong kung fu cinema throughout the '70s and '80s, it's to be expected that "Ong Bak" would follow a fairly familiar genre formula, that of the village hero's quest to bring back a sacred, stolen artifact. This was precisely the subplot that embroiled Jackie Chan in the latest remake of "Around the World in 80 Days" and it's the central premise in "Ong Bak" as well. After a small Thai village finds the head stolen from it's revered Buddha, known as Ong Bak, it enlists its mightiest Muey Thai boxer -- Ting -- to pursue the thief to Bangkok and recover the precious head.
Despite the routine nature of the ensuing narrative -- country boy in the big city running up against a powerful crime boss (a wheelchair-bound throat cancer survivor who speaks only through a laryngectomy device) -- Ting's Bangkok adventure is anything but routine. Familiar genre staples like the illegal underground kickboxing tournament popularized in such Van Damme films as "Bloodsport" and the man-against-the-street-gang-alley-encounter popularized in nearly every other martial arts film ever made are elevated to enthralling new heights by dizzying fight choreography and Jaa's breathtaking physical prowess. There's no discernible wirework here, either, establishing the high-flying Jaa as one of the most impressive pure martial artists to grace the screen in decades.
Kung fu film fans, however, will need to temper their expectations in some respects: As a martial art, Muey Thai -- aka Thai Kickboxing -- is a blunt, knees-and-elbows kind of impact style that doesn't lend itself to the same sort of colorful choreography as the Peking Opera-inspired work of Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung or even the Wushu-derived work of Jet Li and Donnie Yen. Nor is Jaa all that charismatic an actor -- stiff and stoic, his performance consists of little more than a furrowed brow and pursed lips, the righteous scowl of a simple, determined man on a mission. But what he lacks in personality he makes up for in physicality, delivering bone-crushing, airborne vengeance with a fluidity and a ferocity not seen since the heyday of Bruce Lee.
Though it's clear that co-producer/co-writer/director Prachya Pinkaew has done an excellent job of schooling himself in the Hong Kong style, he's able to add a uniquely Thai flair to the effort as well, shooting large portions of several major action scenes in single, uninterrupted takes. The intent is obviously to prove that Jaa is really doing what he appears to be doing, without any camera trickery or editorial embellishment. But the technique also lends the film a more sinewy visual style that blends well with the bare-knuckled style of its fighting. As a result, it's both polished and gritty, elegant yet tough -- the kind of overachieving martial arts thrill-ride audiences the world over are certain to embrace with wide-eyed, slack-jawed enthusiasm. Starring Tony Jaa, Petchthai Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol and Sukhaaw Phongwilai. Directed by Prachya Pinkaew. Written by Suphachai Sithiamphan, Prachya Pinkaew and Phanna Rithikrai. Produced by Prachya Pinkaew and Sukanya Vongsthapat. A Magnolia release. Action. Thai-language; subtitled. Rated R for sequences of strong violence, language, some drug use and sexuality. Running time: 108 min