Ever since Neo swallowed that fateful pill, a new type of kung fu film has been gathering momentum in America. No longer the stuff of crude violence, these stylized epics by the likes of Ang Lee (“Crouching Tiger”), Zhang Yimou (“Hero”) and Quentin Tarantino (“Kill Bill”) are bent on delivering transcendent treatises on meaning and beauty. Although fighting is important, it takes a back seat to composition and is usually enhanced by computer graphics, allowing untrained actresses like Uma Thurman to become action heros.
“Ong Bak,” a little film from the cinematic desert of Thailand, has none of these slick tricks; what it does have is a shoulder breaking, triple-flipping, 10 feet-high jumping, jaw-dropper of a hero. As a master of Muay Thai kung fu, Tony Jaa is the real deal. With a dizzying sense of timing he takes the human body to its limits, and in the process makes Jackie Chan look like a suburban aerobics instructor. Holding this ace while advertising its lack of stunt doubles, computer effects, and wire-based flying, “Ong Bak” strives for purity of craft, a sort of fighting version of high art. That is not to say that the film as a whole is anything of the kind, but when Jaa unleashes his full potential in the action sequences, his kinetic grace matches the exuberant visual stimulation of a Jackson Pollack canvas. Too bad he’s driving one clunker of a vehicle.
The feeble story serves only to annoyingly distract from, and sometimes even constrain, the action. Jaa plays Ting, a monk in training from an obscure village. He has learned the art of Muay Thai from an older monk under the convenient condition that he must never use it. When a vandal steals the head of the local stone deity, the elders panic and wail a lot until Ting promises to bring the head back. After arriving in Bangkok in his effort to track down the Buddha-stealing crime boss Khom Tuan (Sukhaaw Phongwilai), he joins up with an ex-village monk gone bad, George (Petchthai Wongkamlao) and his screeching female sidekick Muay (Pumwaree Yodkamol). Not surprisingly, Ting’s promise to abstain from violence quickly falls by the wayside.
The film’s first half-hour, which takes place in the village, has no action or decent acting, making it deathly boring. George and Muay lower the bar of campy kung fu with performances that are clownish and wooden. Yodkamol is especially horrid, turning her character on and off like a light switch between lines. Early on, the only entertainment comes from the hilarious Khom Tuan, a gang leader with a tracheotomy who speaks through an electronic voice box. Abstaining from the usual highfaluting evil speeches, this supposedly dignified old man spends the film cutting loose one-liners so creative with their expletives they would make a seventh grader proud.
Then, when all looks hopeless, Jaa steps into the ring. From his first roundhouse kick to a tour de force chase down a crowded street, he defies every expectation, diving through metal rings and cartwheeling between sheets of glass with the fluidity of water. So unbelievable, each physical feat is shown twice from different angles to prove its authenticity (the super cool ones are replayed three times). The film literally stops in its tracks to gape at its superhuman hero.
Jaa’s fights, overscored by music that can only be classified as monk-infused techno, are studies of bodies in motion. Delicate yet powerful, his dodges and punches weave together into a ballet that transcends gravity. Throughout, Jaa fights like it means something, listening to his opponent’s body language to learn their weaknesses. This leads to an uncanny sense that a real warrior is actually being captured on film. So committed is Jaa, he bashes skulls in one fighting scene while literally on fire.
“Ong Bak” showcases these feats effectively but refuses to ditch the pesky story, the only thing hampering the mood. Inexplicably, one of the film’s major sequences involves a car chase with little go-carts — far less exciting, and more expensive, than a single kick from Jaa.
Creating the surreal out of the real, Jaa proves the best special effects are not effects at all. Someone get this man in a real movie, because he’s going to be legendary.