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Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior Movie Review

originally posted many years ago

I have nothing against special effects. I like looking at them, and when they are used intelligently and in service of a greater vision, they deserve all sorts of praise and oohs and aahs. Star Wars is a masterpiece because of special effects. The Lord of the Rings movies couldn't exist without them, nor could Sky Captain, and what would I have done these last few years without them? And yet far too often special effects are abused, like in the Matrix movies, where entire sequences-people, places, and objects-are digitally created. There's nothing really wrong with that, but isn't it always more exhilarating when things are real, when movies treat us to beautiful places that actually exist, and heart-pounding fights where the pain is alive and in the moment? In a modern world of cinema where movies are made at the touch of a button, I prefer legitimacy to computer trickery. I prefer, quite frankly, movies like Ong-bak.

In Ong-bak, no special effects are used, no wires, no stunt doubles, no fooling around. Ong-bak is the real thing, a hard-hitting kung-fu movie worthy of Bruce Lee and certainly better than those disposable Jet Li films. It knows what Bruce Lee knew, that staged, hackneyed stunts detach the movie from the viewer, spoil the illusion and, in a way, freely admit that the whole show is a fake. Because none of the stunts in Ong-bak feel fake, the audience is thrilled more easily and more often, floored by the uncomfortable punch of the movie's realism. Brutal and beautiful, this movie is giddy good fun for anyone who misses real action movies.

We get a sense of Ong-bak's bravery in the opening scene, where dozens of men compete to climb to the top of a huge tree. In long, unbroken takes, the men hurl and bat each other off the branches, and one-by-one they fall to the ground with bone-crunching thuds. In any other movie, a man's fall would be intercut with close-ups or other random shots, allowing a stunt double to sneak in just before the man hits the floor. Not in Ong-bak. These guys really fall, and boy, do we feel their pain. After that, the audience is sore, but eager.

There's a plot somewhere in here, involving a lost Buddha head and an underground fighting organization, but it means nothing. Ong-bak's star, Tony Jaa, is the only reason anything happens in this movie, for it's his skills as a fighter and stuntman that we've come to see. And, indeed, Jaa is a remarkable talent, a fast, lean, powerful embodiment of gravity-defying elegance. He ranks with kung-fu's greats in terms of sheer ability, and gets my vote for Jackie Chan's successor, if and when age finally catches up to the legend. Jaa's brilliance as a martial artist will have your head shaking involuntarily in disbelief-anyone who thinks a kung-fu movie without wires or effects is limited has not seen this guy in action. Ong-bak is a marvel because of him.

In fact, Jaa is so good that the entire movie seems devoted to thinking of new ways to showcase his abilities. Ong-bak has Jaa do things just because he can. During one chase sequence, Jaa walks across men's shoulders, hurtles over moving cars, and leaps through a teeny ring of barbed wire. Why? Because he can, and we can't. In another sequence, Jaa not only survives a massive explosion, he emerges from the blaze and kick boxes with flaming legs (thankfully, the movie remembers to put a tub of water nearby so Jaa won't hurt himself). And, as if we weren't wowed already, after a particularly crazy stunt or martial arts move, Ong-bak treats us to a slow-mo replay. Just to emphasize how cool Jaa really is. In that sense, the replays are unnecessary-I don't think anyone will need to be reminded how great this guy is.

The best scenes in the movie are the ones when Jaa really gets going, like the brawl in the underground fight club, which makes Tyler Durnham look like a pansy. Scenes like that, or the barb wire chase, will have you thrilling to the ingenuity and authenticity of it all, and grinning in hope that this isn't the last time America will see Tony Jaa. Above all, Ong-bak is damned entertaining. Don't let the subtitles fool you-this is as good as, if not better than, any action movie the States will offer this year.

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