There’s a story about sternum-crushing Thai juggernaut Tony Jaa that I really hope is true. When asked during an interview who his influences are, one of the names Jaa dropped was that of legendary face-kicker Jet Li and said he wanted to be able to be as impossibly nimble as him to which the technique of wire fighting was brought up. “Wires?” replied a confused Jaa who went on to realise that he’d been training himself to launch himself through the air like a concussion dealing jumbo jet without the aid of cables and counter weights. Whether this story is even remotely accurate is up for debate but it’s a fitting preview for the debut of Jaa’s particular style of incredibly hard hitting action that finally was revealed to the world in the form of bludgeoning action flick Ong-Bak. Colliding with the world with the velocity with a well placed fist ploughing into a thug’s solar plexus, Jaa’s attention grabbing adventure acted as a nose shattering showcase for the art of Muay Thai as a cinematic martial art style to be reckoned with.
The simple folk of the sleepy village of Ban Nong Pradu in rural Thailand awake one day to find the head of their ancient budda statue (the Ong-Bak of the title) rudely decapitated much in the style of Jebediah Springfield from that episode from The Simpsons. The culprit is a no good criminal who aims to sell the head of Ong-Bak for drug money and without it the superstitious townsfolk believe the local crops will perish and the people will starve so up steps Ting, a member of the community who is insanely proficient at whupping all kinds of ass in alphabetical order and who volunteers to travel to the mean streets of Bangkok in order to retrieve the head.
Instantly wandering smack bang into Bangkok’s absurdly seedy underbelly and upsetting various gangs without really even trying, Ting is led through a world of drugs and fight clubs by village black sheep and bumbling con artist Humlae who quickly spots that Ting’s talent of belting the shit out of anyone who desides to start trouble could be hugely profitable. As the naive but noble Ting gets busy rearranging the facial features of a variety of potential combatants, he eventually pops up on the radar of the local wheelchair bound crime boss who has the odd side business of hoarding religious artifacts for no other reason than he’s ridiculously fucking evil. Soon Ting and Humlae find themselves in a life or death struggle where the latter joins us in watching in awe as the former brings all levels of hurt upon the waves of enemies lining up to collect numerous, inevitable instances of blunt force trauma…
Judged purely on the merits of it’s filmmaking, Ong-Bak initially takes a little while to fully impress with it’s admittedly by-the-numbers plot having Ting spend more time that is strictly necessary wandering around Bangkok in circles while trying to work out exactly how much of what Humlae is telling him is pure, con artist, bullshit. Also there’s a few instances where some shots are noticably almost out of focus and at times you tend to question the professionalism of the movie; but the second Jaa starts doing his Ting (See what I did there?), the movie becomes one of the most impressively violent resumés you’ve seen in years. Somehow combining the grace of Jet Li, the athleticism and timing of Jackie Chan and the sheer bone crumbling impact of Bruce Lee into one impossibly lethal package, Tony Jaa virtually devastates not only every poor soul in his path but also puts a sizable bruise on the audiences expectations of what exactly the human body can do when it comes to glorious scenes of excessive GBH.
Every action scene is crafted to show off every facet of it’s star’s impressive talents at ass-kickery and it’s none more apparent than it’s fight club set-piece where Ting has three different brawls in rapid succession with three different opponents each featuring vastly differing fighting styles and it’s nothing short of breathtaking. Firstly he has to test his pure, unbridled striking power against the hulking Big Bear (choice wittism: “FUCK MUAY THAI!”), then he matches speed with the shock haired and extremely light footed Toshiro while finally wrecking the joint while trading contusions with the frenzied Mad Dog as they wallop each other with fists, glasses and even at one point, a fucking fridge. As a statement of intent it works crazily well and the movie only raises it’s game from there as the visceral nature of the fights are only increased by the fact that the fighters seem to actually be going full contact on each other and every burst of slow motion reveals the legitimately agonized expression on the faces of the stuntmen when they catch a flailing heel clear on the side of their exposed boat race. While this does mean that massive continuity errors appear as people’s hair styles vary enormously from shot to shot as the stuntmen are forced to wear crude wigs over the top of some head padding, it DOES mean that no one was out and out murdered by Jaa’s favoured, wince inducing move of bringing his elbows down directly onto the crown of the head.
And yet still the movie pushes the envelope, seemly finding evermore outlandish ways for it’s determined hero to boot people in the jaw. Ting drives his knee directly into the face of a man trying to escape on a motorcycle with such force he splits the crash helmet in two; Ting runs a good fifteen feet up a wall, unaided, only to leap off and drive his unyielding weapon into the forehead of the guy BEHIND the guy he was originally jumping over; in the movie’s most audacious moment, Ting plants a twirling spinning kick on yet another faceless wrong doer while his legs are – ready for this, kids? – ON FUCKING FIRE.
It’s an exhilarating ride and while some of the humour seems a tad awkward at times (Mum Jokmok who plays Humlae is an actual Thai comedian), you’re never ten minutes away from another beautifully performed act of brutality that will have you no doubt recoiling in your seat, roaring like a football hooligan at a particularly nasty, two-footed tackle.
A magnificent masterclass in major pain.