I’m about seven years late in boarding the Tony Jaa bandwagon, but, now that I’m here, I’m in for the long haul. Talk about a grade-A badass! I used to be a martial arts movie junkie, but I sort of soured on the genre after the massive influx of wire-fu stuff that dominated the market post-Matrix. Don’t get me wrong; I like wire-fu in limited doses, but nothing compares to the sight of real people doing unreal things using only their god-given abilities. That’s what made Jackie Chan’s earlier flicks such a blast. Chan’s films not only showcased the actors incredible dexterity and martial arts skills; his daredevil antics and stubborn refusal to use stunt doubles made watching his movies (especially the cring-inducing end credit outtakes) an exhilarating, seemingly dangerous experience. I like to call them “oh shit!” movies, as the film’s action sequences would invariably provoke just such a response from me every time I viewed them. With Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior, Tony Jaa establishes himself as the heir apparent to the “oh shit!” crown. Displaying both amazing athleticism and a mastery of Muay Thai (a form of Thai kickboxing that’s become quite popular with the MMA crowd), Jaa’s debut is nothing short of a gravity-defying, bone-shattering revitalization of what had become a somewhat predictable and “safe” genre.
Ong Bak opens with a deceptively serene shot of a giant Bodhi tree before pulling back to reveal a horde of mud-coated men screaming bloody murder as they fight their way to the top. Their goal is to retrieve a flag, and they kick and punch and claw at one another, sending their fellow competitors falling to the ground with a meaty thud, until one emerges victorious. He is Ting (Jaa), a reserved and polite denizen of the remote village of Nong Pradu. Despite his notorious fighting prowess, Ting is a monk-in-training, and has taken a vow never to use his skills for harm or financial gain. This vow pretty much goes out the window, though, when the conniving former villager, Don, steals the head of Ong Bak, the village’s Buddha statue. Ting is tasked with retrieving the Ong Bak’s noggin, and ventures to the city of Bangkok, where he is told meet up with another former citizen of Nong Pradu, Humlae (Petchtai Wongkamlao). Humlae, however, is not happy to see Ting. You see, he’s ashamed of his humble origins, and has reinvented himself as the bleached-blonde hustler “George”, running scams with his cute gal-pal, Muay Lek (Pumwaree Yodkamol). At first, Humlae brushes Ting off, but, once he gets a gander at the heaping sack of baht the villagers gave him for his travels, Humlae offers Ting a place to sleep for the night, stealing the money while Ting’s in the bathroom. Ting tracks Humlae down to a local fight club, but Humlae’s already lost the money betting on a fight. When Ting tries to get back his funds, he finds himself forced into fighting that night’s champion, and knocks him out with a single blow. This angers Komtuan (Suchao Pongwilai), the wheelchair bound crime lord (and Don’s boss), who not only lost a bundle on the fight, but is also in possession of the very idol Ting has come to Bangkok for.
Ong Bak doesn’t have much of a plot, but, for what it lacks in substance, it makes up for in bruise-inducing style. This is one of those martial arts flicks where the action is so intense – so downright visceral – that it’s as though you can feel each and every blow as it lands. Jaa’s no Bruce Lee, but he’s got a sort of rustic charm and heaps of charisma, and, while he doesn’t quite command the camera during the film’s few quiet moments, one can’t take their eyes off of him when he’s in action. And oh, what action it is. Ong Bak is like a live-action video game, with big bad bossfights, acrobatic street chases, and a Tuk-tuk (those little open air taxis) pursuit sequence that has to be seen to be believed! It’s all done with heaping amounts of effective humor that’s occasionally offset by some ill-advised stabs at the dramatic, but, in the end, it all balances out like Jaa on a tree limb.
Ong Bak comes to Blu-ray courtesy of Fox, but the results are less than exemplary. I’ve never seen the film on any other format, so I can’t compare it to anything, but the transfer presented here is just barely above standard definition quality. It actually reminded me of sitting in a theater and watching an out-of-focus film at times. The image is soft, occasionally blurry, and marred by an over-abundance of grain that really stands out during the film’s darker sequences and does a number on what little detail there is. Colors are somewhat drab and washed out, but I’m assuming that’s got more to do with the film’s rather limited palette. Much of Ong Bak is awash in golden hues and shadow, resulting in a murky, flat picture that lacks depth or dimension. I’ve read elsewhere that the source material is of especially bad quality, and reviews of the DVD release of the film point out similar issues. Just the same, it’s a bit of a bummer.
The DTS HD soundtrack fares a little better, but is a tad bass-heavy, especially when the film’s techno-trance soundtrack gets going. The buzz and thump of the bass and drums will rattle your bones at high volumes! Dialogue is crisp and clear, overall, and doesn’t get lost in the mix, but, otherwise, there’s not a whole heckuva lot going on here. We get some percussive, meaty fist-on-flesh sound effects, but, otherwise, it’s a pretty simple mix.
Extras are afterthoughts, with a smattering of too-short supplements including a “rap video” and the making of the rap video, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Muay Thai demonstration, a two minute reel of alternate footage, and trailers. All of the extras are presented in standard definition.
Ong Bak is a real treat for fans of old-school Shaw Brothers flicks and Jackie Chan style stunt-fu fests. While it’s pretty threadbare in terms of plot, the fight scenes and action sequences are exciting and inventive, and, given its extremely low-budget origins, borderline miraculous! While I can’t comment on whether or not the Blu-ray looks or sounds any better (or worse) than the previously released DVD, I will say that the presentation here is a bit troublesome. It’s perfectly watchable, but consumers buy Blu-ray for the high quality picture and sound, and that’s certainly not the case here. Then again, if this is the best result that can be achieved with Ong Bak’s source material, fans may have no choice but to accept it as it is if they want to include it in their BD collection.