When I first saw the trailer forOng-Bak: The Thai Warrior(2003) at some indie movie house more than a decade ago, I thoughtTony Jaawas the second coming ofJackie Chan. 2003 was in the era before CGI, so you trusted implicitly that everything you saw on screen actually happened.
The comparison with Jackie isn’t lost on Jaa and his collaborators. He goes out of his way to do stunts that Jackie once did regularly. He jumps through tight spaces while contorted. He scales walls in a single leap. He both hops over and slides under moving vehicles without a scratch. His movements are fluid and surprisingly agile, not necessarily an improvement on Jackie but certainly a bit more balletic. Jaa’s flourishes typically involve gratuitous spins and twists as if he’s trying to earn more points from a gymnastics judge. In a sense, the film presages the rise of parkour, which is not only the art of quickly moving around concrete high-rise cityscapes but the insistence that it’s done beautifully and effortlessly.
On a larger level, the story inOng-Bakis refreshingly revisionist. It’s about a poor ancient village that worships a precious Buddha shrine as its guardian. When the shrine’s head is stolen, our hero must quest to the big modern city to retrieve it and restore balance, not to mention drinkable water, to the village.
Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior Official U.S. Trailer
In films likeIndiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), the hero is a white savior helping out the brown-skinned folks. But inOng-Bak, Jaa isn’t just a Thai guy—he’s one of the poor brown villagers! The revisionism continues in a later fight scene where Jaa has to fight not one but two white guys who are clearly taller and more muscled. Sure,Bruce Leedid it too, but it hasn’t gotten old yet, especially when even today Jaa is relegated to playing tertiary supporting characters in Hollywood films likeFurious 7 (2015)orXXX: Return of Xander Cage (2017).
The reason for Jaa’s lack of crossover ability may lie in the one body part Jaa lacks muscles—his face. As an actor, Jaa never met a stoic expression he didn’t like. He reminds one of Chan’s idolBuster Keaton, and not just because of the daring-do. Jaa also uses a one-facial-expression-fits-all approach. Perhaps this is where Jaa and Chan part ways the most.
Jackie Chan provided texture to his roles by keeping his face elastic in the service of the comedy and occasionally the drama. InOng-Bak, the comic relief is a bumbling con man played byPetchtai Wongkamlao(a.k.a. Mum Jokmok from 2004’sThe Bodyguard) and the dramatic moments are carried by Pumwaree Yodkamol, playing a sidekick who agonizes over her drug-addicted sister.
But back to the action scenes. The best part about all the stunts is that they are accompanied with instant replay, showing us each death-defying trick in slow-mo from another angle. While normally this would be bad filmmaking for breaking the fourth wall, directorPrachya Pinkaew(who went on to direct Jaa in2005’s The Protector) is doing this to let us in on the secret thatOng-Bakfeatures the birth of a star. The movie cliche about people in action flicks randomly carrying window panes suddenly becomes fresh again knowing that Jaa will find new and even more implausible ways to maneuver around them. Once you understand that, you relax into the film’s circus-like structure of obstacle, suspense, and applause-worthy stunts.
And if Pinkaew and Jaa’s longtime mentor and fight choreographer,Panna Rittikrai, are the ambassadors for Jaa’s stardom, then Jaa is the ambassador for the martial art known asMuay Thai, also known as Thai Kickboxing. Though it’s the national sport of Thailand, Americans have seen kickboxing on the screen before. My first intro to it was whenJohn Cusack said it’s what he wanted to do professionally in Say Anything (1989). He never really did much of it in the movie. For that I’d have to wait untilKickboxer (1989), starring Jean-Claude Van Damme. The fact that Cusack and Van Damme are both white guys makes Jaa’s lead role all the more satisfying. He’s owning something that’s culturally his to begin with.
And own it he does. As a living breathing Street Fighter II avatar, he doesn’t so much kick as much as he flies at people with his knees.
And he doesn’t punch people either; he shoves his rock-hard elbow into their skulls and sternums. The film plays so much like a commercial for kickboxing that I half expect a 1-800 number to pop up after a cool move.
By far my favorite stunt is when Jaa is backed into a corner by a gang of a dozen or so baddies. Rather than fight them off, Jaa simply leaps into the air and walks over their shoulders as if dancing on hot coals. It’s such a startlingly miraculous display that for a moment you think this is what Jesus walking on the water must have felt like to the disciples.
Thai Movie Central Rating
How to Watch the Full Movie (with Thai Audio and English Subtitles)
—Buy the DVD (Region 1).Special features include rap music video featuring Tony Jaa; making of the music video; the 8 movements of Muay Thai; behind-the-scenes stunt footage; Tony Jaa Performance at French screening; Tony Jaa performance at NBS game; promotional video featuring The RZA; trailer featuring The RZA; and additional trailers.
—Buy the Blu-ray (Region A/1).Special features include rap music video featuring Tony Jaa; making of the music video; the 8 movements of Muay Thai; behind-the-scenes stunt footage; Tony Jaa performance at French screening; Tony Jaa performance at NBS game; promotional video featuring The RZA; trailer featuring The RZA; and additional trailers.
—Watch on Amazon (rent/buy for US$2.99 & up).
—Watch on Google Play (rent/buy for US$2.99 & up).
—Watch on iTunes (rent/buy for US$2.99 & up).
—Watch on Microsoft (rent/buy for US$2.99 & up).
—Watch on PlayStation (rent/buy for US$2.99 & up).
—Watch on VUDU (rent/buy for US$2.99 & up).
—Tony Jaa performs all his own stunts in the movie.
—There is no wirework or CGI used in the film.
—In preparation for his role, Jaa trained inthe ancient martial art of Muay Boran, which preceded Muay Thai. Instead of using padded gloves, in Muay Boran fighters wrap their hands and wrists with hemp rope. Jaa practices a variation of the sport called Muay Korat, in which practitioners wrap the rope up to their elbows.
—Yodtong Senanan, considered the greatest Muay Thai coach in history, has an uncredited cameo as a man selling cigarettes. He can be seen during Ting's second pub fight.
—The sentences "Hi Speilberg let do it together" and "Hi Luc Besson we are waiting for you" are seen written on walls at two different points in the movie.Luc Bessonwould later buy the worldwide rights (except for Thailand) for the film. He made some minor cuts prior to its international release.
—The Thai title of this movie is องค์บาก, which is simply "Ong-Bak." The film is also known asOng-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, as well asmany other variations of this.
—Movie images and video © Baa-Ram-Ewe and Sahamongkolfilm Co.