Ong-Bak may be the supreme example of a filmic endeavor succeeding exclusively for one cinematic aspect. From a critical perspective, there’s little to gloat about here: aside from some clever slow-mo shots, director Prachaya Pinkaew has crafted little more than a vehicle for Tony Jaa to strut his physical gifts. And what a vehicle it is! Jaa’s abilities are extraordinary—among his awesome feats are a leaping squeeze through a circular piece of barbed wire, a tap dance on his enemy’s heads, and a cannonball dive attack that blasts his hapless victim through a wooden platform. For my money, he blows away any stunts that I’ve seen from Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, or any of the other Kung-Fu legends. Mix Lee with Shaobo Qin of Ocean’s Eleven, and you might get an idea of Jaa’s unique and mesmerizing style. If you find martial arts boring, you’ll get absolutely nothing out of Ong-Bak—the story is simplistic and fairly recycled, the writing amateurish, the religious allegory a yawner. But come now; you didn’t really go to Ong-Bak to learn about faith, did you? You want to see some ass-kicking, and I can safely say that Ong-Bak delivers the adrenaline and breathless squeals in spades.
Avoiding Enter the Dragon’s primary Achilles Heel, Pinkaew mostly steps out of Jaa’s way, allowing him to control the screen for roughly 85% of the picture. It’s a smart decision—supporting performers Petchtai Wongkamlao and Pumwaree Yodkamol lack the grace or screen presence to sustain the momentum of Jaa’s tour-dé-force. As complements, they’re dandy—particularly Wongkamlao as comedic relief—but they would have crumbled under more responsibility. Luckily, Jaa dominates the action, and his combination of ballerina-esque footwork, flexibility, and firecracker strength is mesmerizing to watch. Ong-Bak presents such a rare chance, in fact—the birth of, essentially, a surefire movie star—that it’s worth seeing just to gloat about it years later. That the title is misleading (Ong-Bak is a statue, not a name) sums up the production values, as well as how unimportant they are in the grand scheme of things. As a film, Ong-Bak barely rises above cliché; as a showcase for Jaa’s present and future, it’s about as riveting as it gets.