22 October 2007


There's such a fine line between gloriously bad and wickedly awesome. During the opening moments of Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, I was worried the film would lean toward the bad. The basic set-up is simplistic.

Meet Ting (Tony Jaa), rural villager, monk-in-training, and master of Muay Thai fighting. An elder monk stresses that Ting must not use his impressive combat skills. Everyone watching knows he will spend the entire movie using his impressive combat skills.

Meet Don, a shady character. How do we know he's shady? Because he wears jeans, has a trash 'stache, and offers to buy a sacred religious artifact from the villagers. When his offer is spurned, he steals the head of Ong-Bak just prior to the annual Ong-Bak festival.

Meet the villagers. They moan and wail and cry about how their village is doomed to perish without their sacred statue. They pool their meager savings to help Ting on his journey to track down the statue in the big city. There's actually a scene where they realize the well is running dry and, rather then, oh I don't know, look for more water, they gather and wring their hands about their missing statue.

It's a stilted yet quick way to get Ting into situations where he must fight against his peaceful will. But a funny thing happened on the way to the butt kicking: the movie suckers you into caring. It wins you over with humor while cleverly setting up a simple, effective theme to underscore the wild action.

The director and his co-writers find the perfect tone to launch Ting on his journey through the grimy, corrupt underworld of Bangkok. The film is sardonic and wry, almost satirical, but never silly and stupid. One funny scene has scam artist Humlae, a jaded former neighbor of Ting's, stumbling futilely while Ting leaps gazelle-like down an alley and away from an angry gang. Humlae eventually steals a knife from a butcher and wields it, the tables briefly turned, only to have a knife vendor pass through hawking her wares to the gang's sudden delight.
Instead of making Ting a superhuman hero, the film makes him a fish out of water. He's on the outside looking in with his peaceful mindset and singular beliefs. The filmmakers know a modern audience can't really identify with his mystical mission. Just like con artist Humlae and his partner, who Ting hesitantly links up with, we're skeptical of what Ong-Bak means and why it's so important. The joke is on Ting half the time, as when Humlae tricks him into participating in an underground fight club to pay off his gambling debts. Humlae keeps baiting and switching Ting, helping only so far as he can help himself. Tony Jaa finds the perfect note to play Ting. He isn't there to convert anyone, he's just a guy trying to make things right. He's patient, kind, but not stupid. He knows when he's being used but doesn't act out of spite or revenge. His refusal to compromise, if only to make his journey a little easier, is endearing. He's kinda like an ass-kicking Forrest Gump, a lovable country bumpkin with some seriously vicious flying elbows who's resilience won me over.

What I especially liked about the film is the way they make the conflict actually kinda sorta interesting.
It's not just Jaa versus gangsters. It is that, but time and again the story reflects themes of the old versus the new, the traditional versus the modern, and the sacred versus the corrupt. I'm not saying it's Pulitzer material, but there's something identifiable in the fighting that goes deeper than good and evil. My brain was tickled just enough to keep it awake. It's not just Jaa that you're pulling for, it's his cause, which I started to root for almost in spite of myself.

And by the way, the film kick serious ass. It's amazing stuff, especially considering that it's all basically real. Jaa's knees and elbows really are making contact, although it's a little suspect that every would-be victim either has big hair or a cap to hide the padding protecting him. No matter. Jaa is clearly an athletic freak, and the fights are quick and nasty, choreographed for maximum impact. (Doesn't "maximum impact" sound like a B-movie action flick? Curiously, it isn't. Dibs!) I appreciated the way that Jaa almost always is on the defensive, a reflection of his character. Most "peaceful" heroes in these things usually have an angry switch, but Jaa does only as much as is necessary to kick your ass.

He gets hit with chairs, tables, refrigerators, saws, more chairs, and even fire. Since this is an action movie, all sorts of bizarre and dangerous obstacles (plates of glass, racks of sharp rakes, whatever) magically appear during foot chases, but Jaa doesn't stop. All that stuff about tone, themes, and character? It adds just enough reality to the film to make me believe he can do all these things that he does. I willfully and gratefully suspended my disbelief, not just so Tony Jaa can jump off balconies and through scaffolding, but also so he can make things right with the gods, and maybe even redeem a few corrupted men along the way.

Ong-Bak had me going. It knows when to be funny, when to be serious, and when to let the stuntmen do the rest. That's how asses are kicked.

No comments: