Rightwing Film Geek



ONG-BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR (Pracha Pinkaew, Thailand, 2005, 10)

This martial arts film from Thailand is awesome. This movie has a fight that last 0.5 seconds and one kick. This movie has a hero who dodges plates as they’re tossed at him and then smash elsewhere in the frame. And who dodges live electric wires as they’re thrown at him. This movie has a hero who KO’s one guy with a blow to the skull that breaks in half the bad guy’s helmet, while he is wearing it, and another by kicking him through the table. Did you get that? “While he is wearing it.” “Through the table.” This movie has flamboyantly evil villains who physically stuff coke up the noses of poor defenseless damsels. In a fight in which this movie’s hero outnumbers the villains 1-to-20, after the first 19 baddies have had their asses thoroughly kicked, No. 20 runs away. The movie has an entourage of bad guys guarding a Buddha that wear matching black ensembles, with knit caps. And a Mr. Big villain with a tracheotomy who says through a talking machine “I decide who lives or dies. Remember: I am God.” Did you get that? “Through a talking machine.” Like the Pope. This movie has another villain who suddenly energizes himself by grabbing 20 syringes full of Villain Power Super Juice. Like Jose Canseco. The movie has a fight in which a whip-like kick misses the bad guy’s legs — on the first revolution and then on the second revolution hits him in the head. Did you get that? “On the second revolution.” This movie prompted dozens of winces and gasps (and laughs) from the gobsmacked patrons at a D.C. art-house on opening weekend. This movie is the most awesome movie in the history of awesomeness.

Now that’s how one might write a review of ONG-BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR (what a stupid renaming; as if there’s anybody in the target audience for a martial-arts film that would be put off by the original “MUAY THAI WARRIOR”). In fact I wrote a capsule very much like it a couple of years ago (2nd capsule down). And, as a measure of this film’s awesomeness, without having to reuse one moment when I repeated the Breathless Fanboy Love Letter act in the paragraph above.

However, that is the honest reaction to ONG-BAK, which in some ways is criticism-proof. You’re either wowed by the film’s stunts and the athleticism of star Tony Jaa, all achieved without wires and essentially no special effects, or you’re not. If you are, noting the film’s obvious shortcomings is meaningless caviling. And if you’re not, ONG-BAK doesn’t even arguably have anything else to offer. The film looks cheap and its technical credits, except for the sound effects editing, are utterly generic. The score in particular is hardly better than what one gets on a porn movie or a company orientation tape. In fact, I can’t recall another film where I was so aware of the gap between awesome sound effects and awful score. The plot is too formulaic to be called a cliche (good guy from small town tries to retrieve a Buddha head called Ong-Bak that was stolen and taken to The Big City of Bangkok and deals with gangsters, gamblers, pushers and assorted baddies). A terrific opening scene aside, the film takes longer than necessary to get started, though once the mayhem starts … man, ONG-BAK more than compensates by hardly pausing for a breath afterward.


Some of the specific criticisms are bone-headed though, I think. Several have complained about the film’s habit of showing the same stunt from two or three angles. But for a film like this, though I noticed right away on first viewing, I stopped being annoyed by it real quick. Usually when an action or athletic scene is edited together, it’s to “cover” for actors or stuntmen who don’t have the chops to do what the characters are being shown doing (see my complaints about BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM here). But in ONG-BAK, it’s almost the opposite. The editing never is constructed into “the stunt,” but always just another angle on the always-completed stunt. It’s more like instant replay, or a form of reassurance — yes, you really did see what you just thought you saw, but didn’t believe you did.

The style obviously invites comparison with Jackie Chan. And the comparisons, like the Washington City paper made in a now-dead link) usually find Tony Jaa wanting. Yes, Jaa personally doesn’t have Chan’s comic gifts and is a bit wooden as a straight actor. But does that really matter? Did anybody ever think Fred Astaire could *act*. And I don’t see how anybody who saw ONG-BAK in a theater with an audience could say the film as a whole is humorless. There’s plenty of comedy, partly from the wit in the ridiculousness of some of the stunts supposedly set up too straight-faced to be funny (the aforementioned one-kick fight) and some occasional use of fast motion. And part of it is The Overplaying Sidekick. To cite only the funniest joke, Mr. Overplaying Sidekick wields a huge cleaver to ward off a gang of bad guys chasing him. Right at that instant … talking vaguely not to step on the joke … an elderly woman walks by … and the chase begins again.

After I wrote that first capsule, it was pointed out to me by some jerk that this film proved the irrationality of my rule about waiting for second viewing to see how a film held up, before grading it a 10. Ryan noted that I would probably never have another experience with ONG-BAK like I had at that Toronto Midnight Madness screening. Citing our mutual idol Pauline Kael, he said not giving it an immediate 10 was being false to my experience of that film that night, when I was on an adrenaline high for hours after and called it “the most awesome movie in the history of awesomeness.” My Rugby-Grand-Slam-hopeful-Welsh bud Dan made a similar point more recently:

But I never expected [others] to like the final 40+N minutes of the rest of the film as much as I did in the midnight screening … I’m not sure anyone can enjoy it as much as the audience who were there at the Uptown that night.
Indeed, since then, I’ve not enjoyed ONG-BAK quite as much on the couple of times I’ve seen it. I’ve used it as more of a dvd-of-cool-moments when showing it to mates.
But nothing could compare to that first showing.

Second viewing wasn’t quite the “ohmigawd” experience as first, and, yes, it couldn’t be because the specifics of the viewing experience never could be duplicated — the (now-demolished) Uptown 1, an old-style movie palace that seats 1,000 up to the rafters; a midnight show at the end of an exhausting six-movie day; the experience of being snuck up on and gobsmacked by a film you had no idea would be this amazing; a packed audience of fanboys wowing and wincing along with every stunt (Jim, Dan, Erik and I were feeding off each other’s reactions — I specifically remember who I saw ONG-BAK with, and I can’t say that for many other festival films).

But that screening goes into my memory bank as one of the four or five Greatest Filmgoing Experiences of My Life — seeing ALEXANDER NEVSKY with a live symphony orchestra and choir performing Prokofiev’s score; seeing 2001 for the first time at a midnight show at an IMAX theater; seeing TIME OUT at a little shoebox arthouse (now closed) a week after giving up films for Lent. As long as ONG-BAK held up generally, and it does and all those other cited films have, I’ll excuse slightly diminishing returns. We’ll always have Paris, or something. I did have some of the same fun on second viewing, by seeing it with an audience of newbies (a packed-but-small theater, with about 60 gasping and laughing along with it And for once in my life, I didn’t care about loud first-weekend audiences.

March 2, 2005 - Posted by | Uncategorized

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