The martial arts film “Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior” has become mildly famous on the festival circuit because of what it doesn’t have: wires, stuntmen, or computers. There are tricks of camera placement and creative editing, of course, but for the most part, what you see is what you get, and it’s often extraordinary.
It’s a good thing, too, because the story is dumb and the paper-thin characters are motivated only by the needs of the plot. But man, those action scenes! Just watching the film’s hero, played by lithe super-human Tony Jaa, run down a city street is thrilling, as he is able to leap over tables, carts and other tall objects as though they were curbs. His fighting skills are even more impressive — he and the character are trained in Muay Thai — and the film works as a sort of Muay Thai porno, where there’s a basic story and a little dialogue between scenes of everybody gettin’ busy.
Jaa plays Ting, the favorite son of a humble village called Nong Pradu. The town deity is Ong-Bak, and a festival to honor him is coming soon — but alas, a greedy fiend named Don (Wannakit Sirioput), angry that he could not strike up all the deals he wanted while visiting Nong Pradu, has sawed off the head of the Ong-Bak Buddha statue and taken it with him back to Bangkok. Without a head for the statue, surely the village is doomed! (I do not pretend to understand this, nor do I know if it accurately reflects how Buddhism is practiced in modern-day rural Thailand. Either way, the townspeople are distraught.)
So Ting takes a hero’s journey to Bangkok to retrieve the head by all means necessary, even if he has to kick a lot of butt in the process. And in the process kick a lot of butt he does! He first finds Hum Lae (Petchtai Wongkamlao), a Nong Pradu boy who has forsaken the traditional ways of the village and now works the streets of Bangkok as a grifter, thief and con man. Hum Lae has a little sister figure in the tomboyish Muay Lek (Pumwaree Yodkamol), his accomplice and friend, and they sort of agree to help Ting find Don, but mostly they are awed by his fighting skills and thus find every opportunity to exploit them, including pitting him against competitors in an underground fight club.
And there you go. There are more details than that, but there’s the gist: fighting, running, snooping, statue-head-retrieving, more fighting, and so forth. Director Prachya Pinkaew injects some humor and imagination into the action sequences (if not very much anywhere else), recalling in Tony Jaa a less-charismatic Jackie Chan or a younger Jet Li. Pinkaew does have the irritating habit, however, of showing particularly cool stunts from several different angles, apparently so pleased with himself and his actors for having accomplished it that he can’t resist showing it to us three times.
Rough edges aside, the movie is giddy good fun to watch, and probably would be just as much so without subtitles. A fleet of three-wheeled taxis being destroyed during a chase through Bangkok is entertaining in any language, after all.
B (1 hr., 40 min.; Thai with subtitles; )