Running time: 1h 45min
Directed by Prachya Pinkaew
Written by Panna Rittikrai (story), Prachya Pinkaew (story), Suphachai Sittiaumponpan (screenplay)
Starring Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol
The head of a sacred Buddha statue gets stolen from a rural village in Thailand, and it is up to local country boy/martial arts practitioner Ting (Tony Jaa) to return it by any means necessary. This quest leads him to the big corrupt city, and, of course, to a series of martial arts fights where he must reluctantly bash his opponents in order to eventually, maybe, have a chance of recovering the holy artifact from the evil criminals who took it. Ong-Bak good for what it is; a stunt/martial arts choreography showcase of Tony Jaa in the guise of a feature film.
I am by no means knowledgeable about martial arts, nor have I seen that many martial arts films, but the stunt work/fight choreography of Ong-Bak looks, for the most part, pretty good and entertaining. Not as good as in, for example, Jet Li’s Fearless (2006) or Once Upon a Time in China (1991), or in most of the Jackie Chan films I have seen, or in the Raid films, but better than most. Then again, if I have seen a martial arts film, it is usually because it comes highly recommended, so I have not really watched bad martial arts films. But, while assuming things is generally to be avoided, I would imagine that most martial arts films are not as good as Ong-Bak – take that as you will. I did originally get it on DVD because someone recommended it, after all. And, if you look at the poster, they do at least claim that Tony Jaa is the real deal – and I have no reason to doubt it.
As a movie Ong-Bak works, but just barely – the story is just enough justification to build the fights around. There is a theme of rural (pure) against urban big city (evil/corrupt) going on in the film, where money seems to corrupt even otherwise good people, and while the rural folk are poor and simple, they are honest and good. This is simplistic, of course, but I suppose there is some truth to it. Ting only fights when he has no other choice, so he always has the clear moral high ground when he demolishes the unfortunate fools that take him on.
Tony Jaa is not great but definitely not bad as the simple farm boy protagonist. His stunt work and martial arts skills are great, and that is obviously why he is the lead in this film, not his acting abilities. Petchtai Wongkamlao does the best as an actor in the film, playing the morally grey comic relief character that tags along with Ting. The main bad guy, an old crime boss named Komtuan (Suchao Pongwilai), is pretty memorable and occasionally hilarious, but his main henchman is not as remarkable. The story gets progressively sillier as it goes on, but that does not make much of a difference one way or the other for reasons already stated.
Technically the film is quite competent, it shows the fights properly and in good lighting, and even shows some stunts again from a different angle and/or in slow motion – something I do not remember seeing in other films. This feels a bit gimmicky at times, but it overall is a good choice for a film such as this, I think; again, the main reason to watch Ong-Bak is the fights/stunts, and this way the viewer can appreciate them all the more. As an aside, I absolutely loathe the use of shaky cam, poor lighting, and quick edits to cover up poor action scenes. So in this regard Ong-Bak does a stellar job, and it makes up for much that might be otherwise lacking.
Ong-Bak is a martial arts film that has good to great action but not much else going for it. The story is very basic and the acting is mostly poor, but story and acting are not why one watches martial arts films – if done well, it does definitely help, however. And, while objectively speaking the acting is generally lackluster, that does not mean that it is not fun to watch – just not for the “right” reasons. Ong-Bak has elements which are genuinely good, some that are just mediocre, and some that are bad but entertaining because of it. I would not recommend Ong-Bak for someone who is not into martial arts films, and it does not make my top 5 in the genre, but it is good; I have watched it 3 times now, so that speaks for itself. Watching this on 1080p+ would improve the experience; sadly I had to make do with an old and somewhat grainy DVD.
Rating as a movie: 6.0 / 10
Rating as a martial arts showcase, based on no real knowledge: 8.5 / 10
Times I had seen this film prior to this viewing: 2
Would I want to rewatch this film? Intoxicated and in good company, I could be convinced