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Every iconic image and snazzy film-school editing trick
in Prachya Pinkaew’s fierce, playful Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior has been
designed with exactly one thing in mind: making a movie star out the wiry Thai
kickboxing prodigy Tony Jaa. But this director is no chopsocky primitive. Pinkaew
is a flashy young Spielberg fan schooled on music videos. There’s a nice irony
in the fact that what is being sold in this sophisticated package is a concise
little fable about a pious Buddhist country boy, an orphan raised by a monk,
who uses a tough, traditional form of Muay Thai (“Thai fist”) to mop
the floor with a bunch of corrupt city slickers.

When the tiny hamlet of Nong Pradu awakens to find that the head
of the statue of its guardian Buddha has been stolen, the village’s top athlete,
Ting (Jaa), volunteers to delve into the dark heart of Bangkok to get it back.
This, of course, he eventually does, but not before he’s become the new champion
of an illicit bare-knuckle fight club full of giant Caucasians, run what amounts
to a gymnastic steeplechase through cart-packed alleyways, and faced off twice
against one of the scariest, seethingest mad-dog fighters in recent movie memory,
Chatthapong Pantanaunkul’s Saming, who abuses his already bulging veins with
massive meth injections.

The glow of manly uprightness around Tony Jaa’s Ting goes beyond
the genre’s standard power-worshiping iconography. He embodies the virtues of
a traditional Thai village folk culture that is here depicted as surviving into
the 21st century in a pristine idyllic state, photographed through a golden
glow. Ting’s sidekicks in Sin City include one of the village’s prodigal sons,
a would-be street player and con artist whose childhood nickname was Humlae
(“Dirty Balls”) but who now insists on being called George. Played
with expert rat-a-tat timing by stand-up comic and film director Petchai Wongkamlao,
George turns out to be the movie’s pivotal character, the reluctant hero who
abandons his amoral ways, reconnects with his old values and signs on to help
his home village get its idol back.

 

Tony Jaa’s official legend is already highly polished,
and it may jibe a little too perfectly with the themes of this, his first movie.
Born Jaa Panom Yarum in a village in northeastern Thailand, he grew up watching
Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan on outdoor screens set up by traveling exhibitors.
He told Time Asia last year that in the initial stages he was a self-taught
martial artist, practicing “in his father’s rice paddy or, when bathing
the family’s elephants, by somersaulting off their backs into the river.”
It was only when Jaa and his mentor, B-movie action director and martial-arts
choreographer Phanna Ritthikrai, began planning the film that would become Ong-Bak
that Jaa sought out the few surviving elderly masters of Muay Thai Boran, a
more rigorous and lethal form of the ancient art than the watered-down version
on display in the modern kickboxing ring. A star image and the film that would
deliver it to the public were being honed simultaneously.

As a result, while Jaa’s moves may be rooted in a village-square
form of practical pugilism, they’ve been developed way beyond that. His specialty
is a martial-arts cannonball, a death-from-above move in which he vaults into
the air and drops down onto an opponent, arms and legs tucked in, leading with
his knees and elbows. Jaa combines blunt-force stunts like this with gorgeous,
pinwheeling acrobatics, the spins adding centrifugal power to his kicks. In
one startling shot, he rolls sideways like a wagon wheel between two sheets
of plate glass positioned just inches apart. However shrewdly he’s been packaged,
Tony Jaa is the real thing.

ONG-BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR | Directed by PRACHYA PINKAEW
| Written by SUPHACHAI SITHIAMPHAN, from a story by PINKAEW and PHANNA RITTHIKRAI
| Produced by PINKAEW and SUKANYA VONGSTHAPAT | Released by Magnolia Pictures
| At selected theaters