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8th Aug 05
A young villager heads to Bangkok to recover a stolen Buddha's head and ends up getting into a load of fights.
If you’re a keen follower of the martial arts scene, you’ll be familiar with the number of times the industry’s latest star has been referred to as the next Bruce Lee. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson, even Jean-Claude Van Damme had the honour thrust upon him at one point (hard to believe now I know), so it will come as no surprise to anyone that the back of the box to Ong-Bak is emblazoned with the legend “Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li all rolled into one!” Sheesh, no pressure then…
So let’s delve into the story of Ong-Bak. It’s the tale of Ting (Tony Jaa) who, abandoned on the steps of a rural village temple as a child, is taken in by the monks and raised as one of their own. Under their teachings, Ting grows up to be a master of Muay Thai, although before you can say The Big Boss, the head monk makes him promise he won’t ever use his skills in combat. Ting reluctantly agrees.
Things take a change for the dramatic when a gang of youths (the disaffected sort that ditch the rural village for the fast living of Bangkok city) steal the head of Ong-Bak, the villager’s revered statue of Buddha. Convinced that the village is doomed without it, the elders go into a superstitious panic until Ting volunteers to journey to the big city and recover their precious artefact himself. So with a handful of change (the villagers have a whip round) and a chief suspect (one of those disaffected types I was telling you about, this time called ‘Don’) Ting heads to the big city, intent on retrieving the head in time for the village’s annual harvest festival.
Arriving in Bangkok, Ting’s first port of call is George, or ‘Humlae’ as he was known as when he was growing up with Ting, back in Pradu village (much to the amusement of George’s girlfriend, who didn't know he was a hick). Ting, being out an outsider, desperately needs his help, but George isn’t interested. Not interested, that is, until he sees what a good fighter Ting is. Yes, defending their honour Ting ends up getting into the odd brawl or two down the local fight club which George had dragged him too on the promise of finding Don there. Bang goes that promise of not fighting he made, but there’s no surprise there because otherwise this movie would have been a little dull.
But dull this movie isn’t. When Tony Jaa fights, it’s with the intensity and believability we’ve not seen since, oh, before you were born. Yuen Woo Ping may have rocked the martial arts world in recent years (even breaking western audiences with his choreography in The Matrix) but for all it’s grandeur his style of balletic choreography doesn’t quite match the kind of brawling that Tony Jaa shows us here. With Jaa every punch, kick, elbow and knee is delivered with such ferociousness that you can’t help but flinch as you watch it, and the guy hurls himself around the screen following through each move with a strength and purpose that reminds me of a certain one-inch-punch specialist we all revere so much. But just think, Bruce got a stunt double (Jackie Chan’s older brother in fact) to do that famous flip kick in Enter the Dragon, whereas at one point in this film Jaa chains three reverse somersaults together then does the running splits under and out the other side of a moving car. Yes, it's well worth the triple slow-mo replay feature it so proudly receives.
So, is this the start of something special? Let’s hope so, as many times in the paste we’ve been taunted with a brilliant debut and then had to get used to disappointment. I say that because Ong-Bak bizarrely shares a lot in common with Van-Damme’s Bloodsport, i.e. they’re both thin on plot, are the debut flick for their respective stars and involve loads of fighting in an underground fight club where a lot of money is changing hands. Mind you, Ong-Bak also shares a lot in common with early Jackie Chan movies like Armour of God and Police Story, mainly for the amount of knocks the actors are surely receiving and the self-deprecating humour that Petchtai Wongkamlao brings to the role of George (look out for a brilliant chase sequence with Ting leaping and bounding down the street effortlessly, while George tries to keep up but inevitably ends up causing himself the kind of injuries usually reserved for a Stephen Chow movie). Then again, the tracheotomy on the lead boss bad guy reminds me a lot of Ned, Uncle Jimbo’s mate in South Park (the one that keeps buzzing “He’s coming right for us!” through his voice box), so maybe we should reserve a little judgement.
Yes the plot is thin. No it’s nothing we haven’t seen before. But yes, it is refreshing, even if it does get a bit silly near the end. “No wires, no CGI, no stuntmen” may sound like a bold move after the balletic feats of Crouching Tiger and so forth, but at the end of the day it just takes us back to the damaging headiness of those crazy 80s Hong Kong action flicks where every other stuntman spent half his time in hospital. But is that a good or bad thing? Either way the talent of Tony Jaa and the rest of the team behind this movie cannot be denied, and judging by the look of Born to Fight, we can expect more good stuff from these guys in the very near future.
Versions The U.K. Release of this is out in September, is uncut and has a load of extras and interviews and stuff.