Review: Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior

The film’s middle stretch is an unmistakable tour de brute force.

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior
Photo: Magnolia Pictures

The story of a peasant, Ting (Phanom Yeerum), sent to Bangkok to retrieve the stolen head of his village’s Buddha statue, director Prachya Pinkaew’s Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior suggests a cheesy Karate Kid knock-off but quickly reveals itself as a no-holds-barred pageantry of martial arts wizardry obviously indebted to Jackie Chan and his Drunken Master films. Despite the country-mouse/city-mouse ethics that underscore Ting’s rocky relationship to village refugee Dirty Balls (Petchtai Wongkamlao), the back-home politicking scarcely registers throughout the film, and considering the corniness of the events surrounding the theft of the Ong-Bak statue, that’s more or less a good thing.

In the end, the rail-thin plot is simply an excuse to have Ting bust shit up, but the plight of little man is nonetheless evoked in Yeerum’s able performance and Pinkaew’s awesome, wildly aestheticized fight sequences. From the tree-climbing event that opens the film to a dubiously hospitable Dirty Balls’s first encounter with Ting, Pinkaew pieces much of Ong-Bak together from a series of deceptive surfaces, as almost everything that happens in the film perpetuates a string of endless comic or action-packed diversions, sometimes both.

If the film as a whole isn’t as consistently high-pitched as its amusing, moustache-twirling baddies, its middle stretch is a tour de brute force. Beginning with a riveting chase sequence through Bangkok’s back alleys, transitioning into a three-round Muay Thai showdown inside a Street Fighter-evoking betting room amid blinking lights and crashing furniture, and ending with a ridiculous chase sequence aboard tourist carts that leads to a bounty of underwater Buddhas, Ong-Bak doesn’t let up for a good 40 minutes and subsequently sets up a standard for itself that its final moments can’t even begin to measure up to.

 Cast: Phanom Yeerum, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol, Suchao Pongwilai, David Ismalone, Erik Markus Schuetz, Chatthapong Pantanaunkul  Director: Prachya Pinkaew  Screenwriter: Prachya Pinkaew, Panna Rittikrai  Distributor: Magnolia Pictures  Running Time: 105 min  Rating: NR  Year: 2003  Buy: Video, Soundtrack

Ed Gonzalez

Ed Gonzalez is the co-founder of Slant Magazine. His writing has also appeared in The Village Voice and The Los Angeles Times. He’s a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, the Critics Choice Association, and the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association.

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