Director: Prachya Pinkaew
Stars: Phanom Yeerun (Tony Jaa), Petchtai Wongkamlao
Time: 105 minutes
Year: 2003

So it all turns out to be true. It’s the real deal. Last year whispers that soon turned into shouts began emanating from the East that there was a new action star that would amaze and astound you. In an age in which physical action skills have been replaced by wires, special effects and clever editing, this was red raw meat for the action junkies who grew up on a diet of Hong Kong martial arts mayhem in the 1980’s and 90’s. Comparisons to Jackie Chan rolled off people’s tongues like round slippery marbles and the hype build up was huge. The film made the rounds of some of the international festivals and this just fed the frenzy and then French director Luc Besson picked it up and people wondered what he was going to do with it. In the meantime, the dvd came out – but without English subtitles – and finally a VCD snuck in unannounced that did have subs. Now a US distributor is apparently about to pick up the film and unleash it on the American public.

Comparisons to Chan may be a bit early, but Phanom Yeerun - now better known in the West as Tony Jaa – is simply remarkable. His physical feats will simultaneously make your jaw and socks drop in awe. Brought up in a small remote village in northeastern Thailand, Jaa spent years practicing Thai martial arts and though these displays are certainly impressive it his incredible acrobatic ability that will have you laughing and gurgling in near disbelief. It isn’t a nimble acrobatic style, but one very much driven on power, co-ordination and eye blinking speed. It will make you believe again in Santa Claus.
There are a number of set pieces put in place to basically allow Jaa to show his many skills. It begins with a "capture the flag" sort of game – except this flag is at the top of a high tree and an entire village of young men are attempting to reach it and bring it down – and people are being tossed off to the ground below like a truck full of potato sacks. Jaa simply but amazingly jumps from branch to branch without a moment’s hesitation – but this being our introduction to him it serves only as the warm up. There are a number of Thai boxing matches – though very much anything goes – in which he shows beautiful form, speed and power – it’s a thrill to watch, there is also a wild and wacky tuk-tuk chase that felt sort of like a throw in for people who need to see things crash – but for me the piece de resistance was nothing over the top – just a simple foot chase through the back alleys of Bangkok.
A large gang of men is chasing Jaa and he runs to avoid beating the hell out of them. It is ten minutes of sheer eye bending exuberance as Jaa shows agility that will make you want to cheer – as he jumps over two moving cars, slides under another, leaps through barbed wire, glass sheets and most remarkably when cornered by a group of his pursuers, simply runs on top of them to escape before they have any idea what is happening – all this is done (I believe) without the use of wires. How does anyone do that kind of thing?
The film itself in all honesty exists only to showcase Jaa – in most ways in has “B” film written all over it – basic bare bones plot, standard “B” characters and bad guys, poorly scripted dialogue, so-so acting (as amazing as Jaa is physically, he doesn’t have much going in terms of acting and wisely keeps silent for much of the film), but it doesn’t really matter. A quick summary. Ong-Bak is a statue of Buddha in a small remote village and when some Bangkok hoodlums steal it, the luck of the town goes with it. So Ting (Jaa) is asked to go to Bangkok to recover it. Though he has studied martial arts all his life, his teacher tells him never to use it for personal reasons. In Bangkok he tracks down a fellow villager, George (Petchtai Wongkamlao) who long ago escaped small town life and allowed Bangkok to corrupt him. He finagles Ting into an underground fighting arena where Ting then is forced to go against his master’s teachings and fight some mean and rotten farangs (westerners) that he just beats the ever loving crap out of - a sweet moment of Thai nationalism I am sure. Other problems come his way – a gang, a bad guy who speaks through a hole in his throat and a Burmese fighter who shoots himself full of drugs to take on Ting. It is simple and it works. See this film to discover what a human is capable of doing.

My rating for this film: 8.0