I saw this one a long time ago and, honestly, didn’t really care for it. But I thought maybe after the passage of time, my thoughts might have changed. I’ve even had a couple months worth of Muay Thai lessons, so I at least have a mild understanding of the art. But did any of this help? The film follows Ting (Tony Jaa) who must save the statue head of his village’s deity, Ong-Bak, which has been stolen by a thug from Bangkok. While in the city, Ting partners with his no-good gambler cousin, Humlae (Petchtai Wongkamlao) and his lady-friend, Muay (Pumwaree Yodkamol).
I’ve never understood the widespread love for this movie. It’s not bad, but it’s definitely not good. For starters, when you can tell the acting is poor even when you don’t speak the language… the acting is quite poor. Also, the story is pretty lame and not engaging in the slightest.
But most people don’t come into these types of films for the acting or the story. They want to see the action. But… it fails in that regard, as well. The best thing about a martial arts movie is its choreography and the creativity of its action. It’s just as much about the setting and aesthetics as it is about the actual fighting. It’s just as much a dance as it is a fight. Where Ong-Bak fails is that, with a few exceptions, it fails to do any of this. Yes, the fighting itself is impressive, and Tony Jaa is a very skilled fighter, but it’s just not interesting. The setups, choreography, and visualization of it all is basic at best and fails to impress. It’s repetitive, and it lacks what makes martial arts films worth watching.
And when you do get decent ideas for set-pieces, the film decides to turn itself into a live-action cartoon (including randomly sped up segments for no reason). The Tuk-Tuk chase an hour in is just silly. But the highlight of ridiculousness is the big parker chase sequence about 35 minutes in. This action sequence is about as realistic, and just as hilarious, as anything you’d find in Gymkata. Let me detail some of what we have here, in order, in just this 4-5 minute part:
-A guy with a cart holding two towers of barrels spaced perfectly to jump through, followed by a perfectly timed bicycle to jump over.
-A random display of axes and other pointy weaponry blocking the middle of the road and needing to be jumped over.
-Two guys carrying a circle of wrapped barbed wire that needs to be jumped through.
-Two small planes of glass separated just enough to sideways flip through.
-A woman walking by who just so happens to be selling buckets full of knives right when the enemies need knives.
-A random wooden table on the middle of the sidewalk at perfect height for some breakdance fighting.
-A perfectly placed pile of tires set up to trampoline off of.
-Strategically placed cars to jump over or slide under.
And that’s not even everything… just the big ones. What makes it worse (and not just in this sequence, but in pretty much every major action sequence), every single stunt is shown two or three times at slightly different angles just to be like “Damn, doesn’t this look cool? Isn’t this cool? Look how cool I am!” And it gets really annoying.
To add to the film’s bizarre qualities, the Big Bad of the film is a dude in a wheelchair who speaks with one of those electric box things pressed to his neck because he’s had a tracheotomy. And he hangs out and makes high roller bets (against a guy who might as well be played by Ken Jeong) in an underground fight club full of wacky foreigners with names like “Pearl Harbour” and “Big Bear” and “Mad Dog.”
Tony Jaa, again, is a skilled fighter. But he also lacks charisma. Sure he’s intense, but I’d like some kind of connection to the guy. Look at Rama from The Raid. Totally brutal and intense, but he also was a guy you legitimately liked and rooted for. Here, I don’t care all that much. The character of Humlae is good for comic relief, though. He was probably the most entertaining thing about the film. And the girl, Muay (Yeah… a film about Muay Thai has a character named Muay), is actually kinda cute.
So, yeah, I don’t get it. So many people regard this as one of the greatest modern martial arts films, and I couldn’t disagree more. I did see the follow-up (and/or The Protector), though I don’t remember much about it. I’d have to check it out again. Again, it’s not a bad movie, but between the repetitiveness, mostly uninteresting action, and overall silliness of some scenes, I honestly can’t get behind this as being legitimately good. Don’t get me wrong, the parkour chase is a lot of fun, but it’s wacky as hell, and more in a Gymkata way than a Jackie Chan way. And that’s where the movie confuses me. It either takes itself too seriously and lacks the character or fun it desperately needs, or it doesn’t take itself seriously at all and becomes a weird cartoon parody of itself. Tony Jaa is great at what he does, and there are some actual solid action scenes in the film. But they’re just too few and far between for my liking. Sorry.