Every iconic image and snazzy film-school editing trick in Prachya Pinkaew's fierce, playful Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior has been designed with exactly one thing in mind: making a movie star out the wiry Thai kickboxing prodigy Tony Jaa. But this director is no chopsocky primitive. Pinkaew is a flashy young Spielberg fan schooled on music videos. There's a nice irony in the fact that what is being sold in this sophisticated package is a concise little fable about a pious Buddhist country boy, an orphan raised by a monk, who uses a tough, traditional form of Muay Thai ("Thai fist") to mop the floor with a bunch of corrupt city slickers.
When the tiny hamlet of Nong Pradu awakens to find that the head of the statue of its guardian Buddha has been stolen, the village's top athlete, Ting (Jaa), volunteers to delve into the dark heart of Bangkok to get it back. This, of course, he eventually does, but not before he's become the new champion of an illicit bare-knuckle fight club full of giant Caucasians, run what amounts to a gymnastic steeplechase through cart-packed alleyways, and faced off twice against one of the scariest, seethingest mad-dog fighters in recent movie memory, Chatthapong Pantanaunkul's Saming, who abuses his already bulging veins with massive meth injections.
The glow of manly uprightness around Tony Jaa's Ting goes beyond the genre's standard power-worshipping iconography. He embodies the virtues of a traditional Thai village folk culture that is here depicted as surviving into the 21st century in a pristine idyllic state, photographed through a golden glow. Ting's sidekicks in Sin City include one of the village's prodigal sons, a would-be street player and con artist whose childhood nickname was Humlae ("Dirty Balls") but who now insists on being called George. Played with expert rat-a-tat timing by stand-up comic and film director Petchai Wongkamlao, George turns out to be the movie's pivotal character, the reluctant hero who abandons his amoral ways, reconnects with his old values and signs on to help his home village get its idol back.
Tony Jaa's official legend is already highly polished, and it may jibe a little too perfectly with the themes of this, his first movie. Born Jaa Panom Yarum in a village in northeastern Thailand, he grew up watching Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan on outdoor screens set up by traveling exhibitors. He told Time Asia last year that in the initial stages he was a self-taught martial artist, practicing "in his father's rice paddy or, when bathing the family's elephants, by somersaulting off their backs into the river." It was only when Jaa and his mentor, B-movie action director and martial-arts choreographer Phanna Ritthikrai, began planning the film that would become Ong-Bak that Jaa sought out the few surviving elderly masters of Muay Thai Boran, a more rigorous and lethal form of the ancient art than the watered-down version on display in the modern kickboxing ring. A star image and the film that would deliver it to the public were being honed simultaneously.
As a result, while Jaa's moves may be rooted in a village-square form of practical pugilism, they've been developed way beyond that. His specialty is a martial-arts cannonball, a death-from-above move in which he vaults into the air and drops down onto an opponent, arms and legs tucked in, leading with his knees and elbows. Jaa combines blunt-force stunts like this with gorgeous, pinwheeling acrobatics, the spins adding centrifugal power to his kicks. In one startling shot, he rolls sideways like a wagon wheel between two sheets of plate glass positioned just inches apart. However shrewdly he's been packaged, Tony Jaa is the real thing.
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ONG-BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR was directed by PRACHYA PINKAEW; written by SUPHACHAI SITHIAMPHAN, from a story by PINKAEW and PHANNA RITHIKRAI; Produced by PINKAEW and SUKANYA VONGSTHAPAT; and stars TONY JAA and PETCHAI WONGKAMLOA. Now playing countywide.