Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003)

When I was 21, I made a list of my 100 favorite movies and I put this at #93. Of course today, it would be nowhere near my Top 100. But I do think there’s some college-bonehead reasoning to my selection at the time. It’s the perfect movie to watch in a dorm room with beers and buddies.

Ong-Bak is the breakout film for Thai martial artist Tony Jaa, here playing a character named Ting. The prodigy martial artist had his fights choreographed by his trainer and film veteran Panna Rittikrai. The film is directed by Prachya Pinkaew — though the two Ong-Bak sequels ditched Pinkaew and gave directing credit to Jaa and Rittikrai.

The style of martial arts that Jaa uses is called Muay Thai, also called Thai boxing or “the eight-limb art.” It’s a brutal, impact-heavy martial art that uses all of the blunt points of the human body for brute force: fists and feet, of course, but also elbows, knees, the skull, etc.

Jaa’s combat and stunt work is really amazing and visceral — so many of his moves are iconic, up to and including his survival of a gas explosion after which he beats up some bad dudes with his clothes literally on fire. The slow mo replays of some of the best moves makes this feel even more like a fighting video game come to life.

The biggest set piece of the movie comes fairly early — a yellow-lit fight club brawl. The movie inverts the common trope by having the lethal heavyweight that everyone is scared to fight (everyone except Ting, of course) be a goofy British guy with long hair rather than some sort of otherized, dark-skinned minority.

Perhaps obviously, the story is a total afterthought. Ting is chasing down a relic from his rural village — the head of an “Ong Bak” statue. He connects with his cousin Humlae (Petchtai Wongkamlao) and bike racing hustler Muay Lek (Pumwaree Yodkamol). Thus kicks off an hour and a half of alternating chasing down/fighting off disposable minions before the big boss finale. It has a pleasantly comedic and slapstick tone for most of its run-time.

Unfortunately, the last 15 minutes turn slightly more brutal and dark, with snapped limbs and crushed bodies, which dampens the giddy whirlpool of energy that accompanies everything that precedes it.

But we all know why we’re here — the hand-to-hand set pieces that truly dazzle. Jaa emerges from this film as a rising action star, absoutely magnetic and

Is It Good?

Very Good (6/8)

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