‘Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior’: Reactionary & juvenile martial arts movie will please only fans of the genre
Fans of the martial arts genre will likely enjoy Prachya Pinkaew’s Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (a.k.a. Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, or, simply, Ong-Bak), the story of a young country bumpkin lost in the city jungle while hunting for ruthless art smugglers. But no matter which of the three titles is used to sell Pinkaew’s movie, the simplistic, reactionary Ong-Bak will in all likelihood fail to win many converts to the genre.
Here’s a very brief synopsis: A naive but fearlessly determined hick (Tony Jaa) searches for the nefarious villains who have stolen the head of his Thai village’s titular Buddha statue. When not in hot pursuit of the statue-decapitating thieves – or in hot escape from them – our hero spends his time honing his fighting skills at some Bangkok dive or other.
The chief problem with Ong-Bak lies in Pinkaew and Panna Rittikrai’s screenplay, which consists of a pile of hoary clichés – e.g., country people = kindness, courage, honest labor, love, tree-climbing; city people = dishonesty, cowardice, easy money, sex, club-fighting. And all this in a movie that aims to be as slick as your average big-city-made music video and as violent as your average free-for-all urban brawl.
Compounding matters, Pinkaew’s movie drags quite a bit (a mortal sin for a mindless action flick), its humor is puerile (unless you find it hilarious watching people being hit in the head, stomach, crotch, and other body parts), and most of the performers just go along for the ride.
If that weren’t all, Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior could also be accused of being racist: most of the fight-club fighters our pure-as-holy-water Southeast Asian hero tears to pieces are sleazy, cheating Caucasians.
Tony Jaa: Star in the making?
On the positive side, co-screenwriter Panna Rittikrai’s stunt/martial arts choreography is admittedly impressive, while leading man Tony Jaa is not only an outstanding athlete-cum-fighter – he is supposed to have performed his own stunts without the help of wires or digital enhancements – but he is also what is often referred to as “star material.”
Could Jaa become another Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan? Or perhaps another Jean-Claude Van Damme?
Well, for that to happen he needs a (at least halfway) decent vehicle that will allow him to display both his astonishing athletic skills and his not inconsiderable charisma. And, of course, an effective p.r. apparatus to promote him.
For now, all one can say with certainty is that Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior is definitely not the star-making vehicle Tony Jaa needs.
Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior / Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2003)
Dir.: Prachya Pinkaew.
Scr.: Prachya Pinkaew and Panna Rittikrai.
Cast: Tony Jaa. Petchtai Wongkamlao. Pumwaree Yodkamol. Suchao Pongwilai. Chumphorn Thepphithak. Cheathavuth Watcharakhun. David Ismalone. Hans Eric. Paul Gaius. Nick Kara. Nudhapol Asavabhakhin.
Stunt Fighting Choreography: Panna Rittikrai.
Reviewed at the AFI FEST.
Movie cast info via the IMDb.
Tony Jaa Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior image: Magnolia Pictures.
“Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior: Fearless Tony Jaa in Juvenile & Reactionary Martial Arts Actioner” last updated in May 2019.