The back of the keep case quotes MAXIM magazine in saying that "Jaa performs moves that would send Jackie Chan to the chiropractor." I'm a big Jackie Chan fan and I loved his older Chinese and Hong Kong action films. I would agree that today the elder Chan would certainly have an injured back after performing some of the solid stunts by Thai martial artist Tatchakorn Yeerum; known in the United States and internationally as Tony Jaa. I'm not going to knock the legendary Chan and even try to compare the two as they are remarkably different talents and both demand respect for their physical abilities. One thing is for sure is that Tony Jaa is capable of some amazing feats and the man can leap. While I think some Chan films were faster and more entertaining, I don't think anybody has ever leapt or slid under cares with the talent and skill of Jaa.
The film as released in Thailand in 2003 as "Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior" and it is about a young villager named Ting (Jaa) that is trained in the arts of Muay Thai, but he is asked by his monk master to never use his skills as his master had killed a man in a rope ring fight by using Muay Thai. Of course, Ting is forced to action to use his training when a businessman named Don (Wannakit Sirioput) wants to buy the Ong Bak statue and the monks refuse to sell it to Don. Instead, Don simply steals the head of the statue and leaves the village fearing for their safety with their Buddha missing. Ting steps up to be the defender of the village and reclaim the Ong Bak. Money is collected by the village people and he is sent to the city to find his cousin Humlae (Petchtai Wongkamlao), a conman known by his friends as "George."
George first refuses to help Ting and refuses to accept a letter written to him by his father. He prepares to throw Ting out of his apartment until he sees the bag of money given to Ting by the townspeople. He tricks Ting into taking a shower and quickly departs with the money to a local fight club where he meets up with his fellow con friend, the lovely young Muay (Pumware Yodkamol). Ting just wants his money back, but in a martial arts film you can't expect the main character to go too long without getting some blood and sweat on his hands and from this moment on Ting becomes the local fight club champion after he defeats the current champion with one swift kick. This angers crime boss Komtuan (Suchao Pongwilai), who was given the Ong Bak head by Don and sets in motion a series of events where Ting must continue to fight and get back the Ong Bak from Komtuan and his army of criminals.
Eventually, George finds honor and aids Ting in getting back the Ong Bak and Muay is by their side and helps them as she can. There are a series of street chases where Tony Jaa is able to show his amazing ability to make precision leaps and jumps to avoid injury and a scene where he and George chase the bad guys in rickshaws. It is revealed that Komtuan has been stealing Buddhas and earning a large fortune through crime, but he loses $100 million dollars when Ting finds his stash of statues and Buddha heads. Komtuan agrees to give Ting back the Ong Bak if he throws a fight and Ting agrees, but as is the case with every legitimate bad guy, Komtuan reneges on the deal. This sets the stage for a big climactic fight in a cave that is just as good as any Jackie Chan action sequence and as equally unrealistic.
I liked "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior" a great deal and am quite pleased to see a piece of Thai cinema make its way to the United States without being shamelessly remade or edited to no longer contain its own original identity. While the story of a boy willing to give his life to save the head of a religious statue may seem far-fetched, this is an important part of the Thai village and a very legitimate reason to die in Thailand. The film does find a way to become a series of chase sequences and martial arts matches through most of its length until the exciting cave sequence and I didn't feel the full motives of the crime boss were explained as the boss seems to happily dismiss the Ong-Bak as garbage throughout the film, but the positives outweigh the negatives.
Action films in Hollywood are always formulaic and are typically more about the action than anything else. "Ong-Bak" is a good Thai action film that sticks to what makes a Hollywood action film successful and there is no shame in doing what works for the rest of the world. How many Thai films can you buy on Amazon? The answer would not be many and I absolutely love that this little picture has gotten the respect and visibility that it has. It's an above average story with above average stunts and while it clearly lacks the production values and big budget spectacle of Hollywood, "Ong-Bak" reminded me of the fun days of "Half a Loaf of Kung Fu" and other Mandarin classics from my childhood.
The film would not have succeeded without Tony Jaa and while the story is good, "Ong-Bak" would simply fall flat on its face and never had a chance to send anybody to the chiropractor if it would not have been for the absolutely amazing work done by Jaa. He gives this film everything he can and I was surprised to see that he is only a couple years younger than myself. I would be at the chiropractor, but with Jackie Chan losing a step, maybe Jaa is the action hero that the world desperately needs. His acting was good enough, but it is his Muay Thai skills that take center stage. This is an exciting action film and it is only exciting because of Tony Jaa. He and the film do not have the humor of anything done by Chan, but this is a deadly serious film with a deadly capable actor.
You can't go wrong with sitting down to watch the original 2003 "Ong-Bak" and I was thrilled to see it arrive on Blu-ray with its original Thai soundtrack as the default language. It is an honest action film with a hardworking star and does provide an English overdub for those who positively hate to watch a film with subtitles. "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" paved the way for subtitled films to be mainstream many years ago and hopefully, that is the way people will watch this picture. It is a blast and a far better action film than most of the mindless films we are given by the studio system. I love those films just as much as the next guy, but this foreign film is a nice breath of fresh air.
"Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior" was given a full digital refresh for its high definition debut on American shores, but the 1.85:1 picture is saddled with low resolution and was clearly shot with low lightly and inferior equipment. It looks and feels like a subpar DVD release at times and never gets better looking than an upconverted DVD release. Yes, the film does look better than a DVD in its native resolution, but that isn't saying much. The picture looks hazy and dirty and gets very soft in times. The sequel looks remarkably better, but this original picture is not very pretty. Colors are overblown and tend to push the reds, greens and golds heavily and I can't recall much blues in the entire film. The transfer is grainy and the big climax fought in the caves shows how bad the black crush, black levels and shadow detail suffer from the lighting equipment used to shoot the film. It was a low-budget Thai film, can you really complain if it doesn't look like Hollywood?
Sound fared far better than the picture and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Thai soundtrack with English subtitles was my preferred way to watch the film, but I will admit that the matching English soundtrack was a tad bit sharper and the dialogue was clearer. However, dialogue clarity may be due to me actually understanding what was said instead of reading along to subtitles. All channels were used effectively and the remixed audio track that features French and American rap artists pumps along rather nicely as Jaa fights the bad guys. There are some gunshots and a couple big explosions as well and a few moments where the .1 LFE channel throws out some amazing bass. You can hear sounds coming from the rear speakers, but most of the action does come from the front channels. The film definitely sounds better than it looks.
The extremely short clip Live Tony Jaa and Stuntmen Before French Auditorium Audience (2:34) shows the martial artist performing a few moves set to music as well as his entrance to a stage in front of throngs of Frenchman. This show some good movies, but is limited. The Movements of Muay Thai (1:43) is even shorter and shows some of the breathtaking martial arts moves of Muay Thai with the Thai names of each of these movies. Sadly, the text is not in English. The French Rap Music Video with Tony Jaa (4:03) should be a treat and is catchy. It was interesting and it is English from artist French artist Tragedie. Making the Music Video (7:14) is the best feature on the disc and shows footage from the session for the video, but you may grow tired of the song at this point. The Selected B-Roll (2:33) is a collection of three very brief clips not used in the final cut of the film. The Promo Video Featuring the RZA (1:00) and a handful of Trailers are included that were used to promote the film. A final feature is a still frame About the Feature Film Transfer.
I grew up loving old Jackie Chan films and would scour video shelves for old VHS copies. Foreign cinema is often a treat as well and Thailand is a country that I've had next to zero contact with their filmmaking. "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior" introduced me to the amazing Tony Jaa and while he won't be replacing those old Chan films anytime soon as personal favorites, I am eager to recommend "Ong-Bak" to those that I watched any Chan film with. It's a very good action film with good fight scenes. Sure, the second takes and often third takes that pounded a good stunt into the heads of the viewer got tiresome to make sure the stunt was watched from different angles, but I found this to be a film of great fun. The video quality is sketchy, but that is due to its original filming and apparently they did work hard to make it look as good as possible. Sound is good and the handful of short supplements are decent. "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior" is a perfect introduction to Jaa and Thai cinema for anybody.