Something new in martial arts


February 11, 2005|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Not a film to be analyzed, dissected or even thought through that carefully, Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior is an opportunity to enjoy the pure adrenaline rush that has always been the hallmark of martial-arts cinema. It's also a chance to sample a new kind of martial art and to get in on the ground floor of the next big thing when it comes to Asian superstars.

Muay Thai, which translates to "Thai boxing," is unlike anything American audiences have seen before, a mix of traditional martial-arts finesse and the free-for-all of a good street brawl. Instead of relying solely on the hands and feet, Muay Thai seems to use every part of the body; in combat, fighters are just as apt to pound an opponent's head with their elbows and forearms as with an open or clenched fist. As practiced by star Tony Jaa, in his first film role, it's exciting, exotic and even enchanting, just the thing for audiences tired of rote and formulaic action films.

It's also, at least as practiced in Ong-Bak, proudly real; the promotional materials boast that the film includes no special effects, no stunt doubles and used not a single wire or other optical chicanery to achieve what appears onscreen. About the time Ting (Jaa), his pant legs aflame, executes a mid-air leg kick to his opponent's face, that may be hard to believe. But then, martial arts superstars from Bruce Lee to Jackie Chan to Jet Li have made careers out of executing the impossible.

The plot is nothing new: A relic thought to protect a remote village is stolen, and someone has to journey to the big bad city to bring it back. True, director Prachya Pinkaew and writer Suphachai Sithiamphan add a few wrinkles, setting it in the present time and staging much of the action in smoke-filled, back-room Muay Thai matches where rules are few and outlandish wagers are made on the bouts. But audiences shouldn't go looking for an innovative storyline here.

Instead, revel in the grace, artistry and jaw-dropping athleticism of Jaa, who brings a baby-faced wonder to his character but betrays not a hint of vulnerability in his moves. Like Lee and Li, Jaa rarely speaks; like Chan, he allows his character moments of comic relief - winks at the audience that tacitly acknowledge how unreal it all seems.

Jaa is such a formidable presence, few of the other actors really register. Thai comic Petchai Wongkamlao spins every possible wheel as Ting's buffoonish cousin, always playing the angles and looking for a quick buck. And Sukhaaw Phongwilal exudes decadent menace as the emphysema-ridden gang lord that Ting must get past to retrieve the sacred Buddha.

His village has picked a worthy champion; here's betting martial-arts fans everywhere will be doing the same.

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior

Starring Tony Jaa

Directed by Prachya Pinkaew

Released by Magnolia Pictures (with English subtitles)

Unrated (violence)

Time 101 minutes

Sun Score ***

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