As a straight-ahead story, this movie about a young Thai villager (Panom Yeerum, aka Tony Jaa) who goes to Bangkok to retrieve the vandalized head of a Buddha "Ong-Bak" statue, is a tired amalgam of bad action-movie cliches with some pseudomythicism thrown in. But the most important thing to note is the introduction of martial artist Jaa to the world. Young, handsome and about the most amazing pugilist/stunt performer since the days of Bruce Lee and the pre-Hollywoodized Jackie Chan, Jaa electrifies an otherwise lifeless film with his aerial feats and deft Muay Thai fighting skills.
"Ong-Bak" is refreshingly free of the hyperbole of special effects. You know this stuff is genuine. Director Prachya Pinkaew even repeats Jaa's feats in slow motion, from other camera angles, so you can re-savor what he just did. "Ong-Bak" will win no scriptwriting awards, but Jaa is definitely the real deal. You can almost hear the faxes chattering away in Hollywood's top agencies.
I'd also like to mention that Pumwaree Yodkamol, who plays a supporting character, has a banshee pitch to her voice that could cut through granite. And I could have done without the chain-smoking crime lord with the hole in his throat who speaks through a jarringly obnoxious voicebox. So bring ear plugs for whenever these two are on screen. But keep your eyes peeled for Jaa.
ONG-BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR (Unrated, 100 minutes) --Contains martial arts violence. In Thai with subtitles. Area theaters.