In a remote Thai village the annual tree-climbing ceremony is in full swing, with losers thudding to earth like so many ripe apples, as they scramble to claim the flag at the top. This helter-skelter showcase for the agility of our hero, who bears the unimpressive name of Ting, sets a cracking pace, with few let-ups. If the name weren’t enough of a setback, Ting is about to become a monk, and has promised to give up Muay Thai, the martial art at which he also excels. We know this because he runs through a whole gamut of moves, from ‘One legged chicken stance’, to ‘Swooping dragon’. However, when the head of the village Buddha, the Ong-Bak of the title, is stolen, and the village is stricken with draught, it is clear Ting must pursue the thief to Bangkok and, once there, use his skills. Fortunately for the Tony Jaa, the ex stuntman who plays Ting, acting skills are not required, although the muscular youth has stolid appeal when still and an amazing eye-drawing fluidity when in action, which is most of the time when he is on-screen. In the city backstreets he meets up with an old pal who has shaken off his village image and upped his street-cred by changing his name from Dirty Balls to George. Tagging along is the token love-interest, feisty tom-boy Mei.
In a series of spectacular fights, chases and mayhem Ting systematically eliminates the sidekicks of the Buddha-collecting villain, who smokes through a hole in his neck and gets madder by the minute as he keeps on backing the losers at the fight club. Ting is drawn in against his best intentions when a grotesque and sadistic westerner with an Australian accent provokes him into a frenzy of patriotism. Each of the scenes is superbly choreographed to top the one before; Ting fells his first opponent at a fight club with an almost casual forearm flip, but ensuing challenges allow him to work through his repertory as well as dodge a flying fridge, jump through a barbed-wire hoop and slide under a moving truck. Confronted by a street gang, he simply takes a leap and walks over their heads. Although there is plenty of humour of the Jacky Chan type, this is a violent film and the fights are bone-crunchingly real, especially in the final scene where, well, bones get crunched. The cave setting allows the robbers plenty of space to carve up the statues, but they fail to observe the first rule of tree-fellers, which is to make sure you know where it’s going to fall. You can guess who is in the path of the hundred ton head when it rolls.
The most memorable scenes, for me, were the tuk-tuk chase along an apparently traffic-free Bangkok highway, and the one immediately following, where Ting, swimming away from his victory chariot discovers the villain’s cache of national treasures disguised as a fish farm, eerily suspended in nets underwater.
The film is short on romance, not surprisingly since Ting’s last scene has him riding on an elephant to the monastery initiation ceremony, but we have known all along that was his destiny. Besides, Mei is not as interesting as her elder sister, pushing drugs and turning tricks to fund her younger sibling through college. One of the many comedy moments in the film comes early on, when George tells the girl she can’t join in the search for the missing Buddha because she has an exam the following week. Hanging around Fight clubs and motor-cycle tracks hasn’t left her much time for revision, in any case. She was the only character who lacked credibility in a film that was otherwise very convincing on all fronts.
Finally went. Oh dear.
Thai face - Hollywood heart.
I have to agree. There's another Thai kick-boxing film just released, I think.
I'll try to find it.