Jaa Rules

Martial arts sensation Tony Jaa makes the most of his screen debut

If you want to know what Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior is all about, it's pretty easy to sum up. It starts with a big fight, as a group of local villagers plays capture the flag in the branches of a large tree. Then there's a brief stretch of plot, as the head of the village's Buddha statue--the titular Ong-Bak--is stolen. Capture-the-flag winner Ting (Tony Jaa) is sent to the city to retrieve it from the ruffian who's the only logical suspect. Then there's a fight. And another fight. At this point we're in Bangkok, and a tiny bit more plot is added, but not much. Three more fights. A quick transition. Fight, chase scene, fight. Very quick sex. Fight, kidnapping, fight, fight, fight, storm the bad guy's base, fight everybody, epilogue. The end.

But chances are you didn't come to a movie that has a bare-chested, bound-fisted Asian warrior on the poster expecting a complicated story. (And if you did, blame Zhang Yimou for spoiling you.) Ong-Bak's script, if you can call it that, is nothing but a series of setups for star Tony Jaa to show his stuff. Luc Besson and The RZA are already hard-core fans of Jaa's work; Besson even tightened up the edit for Western audiences, though thankfully he didn't insist on redubbing the flick, as Miramax might have--the main effect of his work was to delete a minor subplot involving a tangential character, whose death scene is now utterly meaningless. If you're any kind of fight fan, you'll most likely emerge a convert as well.

Tony Jaa is a master of Muay Thai, a kickboxing style probably most familiar to Americans as the fighting method favored by arch-villain Sagat in the Street Fighter video games. Jaa can't quite summon psychic fireballs, but at one point he does deliver several flying kicks with his feet in flames, splitting a foe's motorcycle helmet in two in the process. He's also extremely adept at appearing absolutely weightless with phenomenal aerial maneuvers. The filmmakers proudly boast that there were no wires, computer effects or stunt doubles used, and if they hadn't proclaimed it, you'd never have believed it--Jaa's hang time is akin to that of Michael Jordan circa 1987, or Carrie-Anne Moss in a Matrix harness.

Look, Ma, no wires: Tony Jaa takes a flying leap in Ong-Bak.
Look, Ma, no wires: Tony Jaa takes a flying leap in Ong-Bak.

A former stuntman himself (standing in for Robin Shou in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation), Jaa is often so fast that director Prachya Pinkaew frequently resorts to the old-school technique of showing certain moves multiple times from different angles--something we haven't seen in action films since Jean-Claude Van Damme started sending his movies straight to cable. Yes, we all got tired of seeing triple takes of guys getting kicked in the face, but when your star can slither neatly between two plates of glass without touching either one, that's worth an instant replay.

All this is well and good, of course, but can the guy act? It's hard to tell in a movie where he's mostly just required to be pissed off. In interviews and in person, however, Jaa always seems incredibly happy, so the fact that he's convincingly angry onscreen may mean he has the chops. That the film's production company, Baa-Ram-Ewe, takes its name from a Babe reference, indicates that those involved have a sensitive side. Jaa's face isn't as expressive as Jackie Chan's, and he's not quite as conventionally handsome as Jet Li, but he could probably give both a run for their money in a fight. He's only in his early 20s, so as impressive as he is now, he's going to get better.

Is there a need to discuss the wheelchair-bound villain with a tracheotomy box, or the tattooed henchman fond of injecting steroids directly into his own heart, or even the token damsel in distress? Hardly. As integral as they should be to the theoretical plot, none makes as much of an impression as Big Bear (Nick Kara), an Australian brawler who offers the most significant English line in the whole thing: "Fuck Muay Thai!" It goes without saying that he comes to regret those words.

No, Ong-Bak is all about Tony, who could easily claim the mantle of "human highlight reel" held by Mexican wrestler Rey Mysterio. That would make the movie a highlight reel of a highlight reel, and a rock-solid audition for bigger things to come.

One word of advice to Jaa, though: If it's at all within your power, try to make sure the next film has better lighting.

 
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