“Kung-fu movies” (often a considerable misnomer) have a considerable cult following among film enthusiasts. As someone with a very slight (emphasis on “very”) background in martial arts, it is incredibly simple to explain this phenomenon. Whereas your traditional Michael Bay style action film relies on pre-fabricated special effects and copious explosions and other digital trickery to elicit its thrills, martial arts films often simply place their resources in the stars whose knowledge of a million ways to kill you with their bare hands and unnatural speed and agility is more than enough to satisfy any audience. There’s a reason that decades after his death, Bruce Lee remains a legend despite making only one film in the United States and only a handful of films in his native China. My film preference will always be high-brow arthouse pieces but there’s a 95% chance I will see whatever Jet Li’s next martial arts epic is because he rarely disappoints. Back in high school, one of my friends recommend a film by Thai up-and-coming martial artist Tony Jaa, Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, and it became the very first movie my family ever rented from Netflix. We couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to the service. While the film’s plot is as paper-thin as you can possibly manage and its first thirty minutes are incredibly slow, once Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior kicks into gear, you really couldn’t ask for a more impressive display of martial arts mastery.
Ong-Bak‘s plot (as meager as it may be) is that of young Thai country peasant, Ting (Tony Jaa) as he goes on a quest to retrieve a sacred religious artifact which has been stolen from his village. A master of the Muay Thai fighting style (which primarily consists of beating your opponents senseless with your knees and elbows in extremely painful and impressive fashion), Ting is chosen by his village elders to go on the quest to receive his village’s stolen Buddha head. Once he reaches the city, he meets up with a former denizen of his village, Hamlae, a gambling addict as well as Hamlae’s female companion, a young student named Muay. Thanks to Hamlae’s connections with the criminal underworld, Ting is able to locate the criminals who stole from his village and he finds himself dragged into a world of underground kickboxing as well as a seemingly endless conflict against waves of seedy thugs who are hellbent on stopping him from receiving justice. Along the way, Ting mows through legions of criminals and fighters while showing off all of the martial arts prowess and sheer stunts craziness that has shot Tony Jaa to international stardom.
I’m not going to devote any time to an in-depth criticism of the acting or storytelling because this is a kung-fu movie and those things aren’t what you came for. Let’s just say that after the 30 minute mark when the film finally has a real action scene, the action doesn’t slow down one drop until the credits rolled. Tony Jaa is one of the most impressive martial artists to come on the scene in ages, and when I put him in the same level of talent as Bruce Lee and Jet Li, that’s really saying a lot. Rather than relying on any of the wire stunts that are in vogue in martial arts films these days, Tony Jaa simply lets his knees and elbows do the talking. He’s lightning quick and ridiculously agile. There’s a foot chase sequence that is as impressive as any of the given fights for how well Tony Jaa is able to jump and flip around the scenery with such precision and finesse. The film will often show some of the most incredible stunts from multiple angles so you can get an even bigger appreciation for just how talented Jaa is. The fight scenes themselves are top notch. Even though I knew it was all choreographed ahead of time and Tony Jaa wasn’t really hitting those people as hard as it looked like he was hitting them, I still found myself seeing “ooooh” and “ouch” a million times through the movie because the choreography was so well done that I was able to momentarily suspend my disbelief.
Even the most cynical of movie fans who either A) aren’t fans of martial arts movies or B ) think they’ve seen everything there is under the sun, need to give this movie a go. Tony Jaa will leave your jaw on the floor. Simply put, he is one of the most bad-ass individuals around and his stunning Muay Thai skillset is pure entertainment. The movie might have virtually no plot and any other time that would bother me. But because Tony Jaa (and not computer graphics or wires) is doing all of this himself, I am able to set that quibble aside and just revel in how talented this man is. It’s not one of the best movies out there, but it’s certainly one of the most fun, and I’m hard pressed to find any one out there who might not walk away without at least a considerable level of respect for the talents of Tony Jaa.
Final Score: B