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Feet of Fury: Tony Jaa kicks his way through 'Ong-Bak.'

Bangkok Brawl

'Ong-Bak' is on a mission from Buddha

By Richard von Busack

PRACHYA PINAEW'S Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior is as refreshing as a week at Phuket. The star, the corded-with-muscle Thai action hero Tony Jaa, works the same trad as Jackie Chan and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. He's a spring-heeled hero, a man apparently born without a skeleton, carrying an exemption from the laws of gravity. Jaa's marital arts and stunt work are free of digital effects or wirework, although there are some sequences of undercranking to catch Jaa's style and some slo-mo flying-glass sequences, cooked up by computer graphics.

Ting (Jaa) is a student of Muay Thai—"Nine Body Weapons"—who volunteers himself on a mission from Buddha. He quests for the head of a sacred statue (the Ong-Bak of the title) stolen from his village by an antiques trader. Without the statue, the rains won't come, and the village well is now full of almost nothing but a little muddy silt. In Bangkok, Jaa runs into a hustling former fellow villager now calling himself George (the breezy comedian Petchthai Wonglamlao). Thanks to George's gambling debts, Ting is forced to raise money in the boxing ring, despite the promise he made to his teacher never to use his mighty skills.

His reluctant task is eased by opponents who pepper him with improvised anti-Thai slogans. When Ting fails to deck a burly wrestler called "Big Bear," the thug shouts, "That's why Thai women come to my country to become hookers!" I need not add that this "Big Bear" is soon hibernating on the canvas! The rude ursine is felled by "bata loop pak" or "foot touches face"—a symbol of terrific, but deserved, disrespect.

The villain is, happily, worse: "If your Ong-Bak is so great, why is he headless?" To be especially horrible, he enunciates his many threats through a "cancer kazoo" as South Park put it. Like Guy Caballero with his wheelchair, he apparently uses the prosthetic just to get respect. Fortunately, this bad guy is permanently put out of business in as satisfactory a way as I've seen since they stopped making Sinbad the Sailor movies.

Ong-Bak is the definition of "more fun than guns." Physical prowess wins over gunplay, including risky stunts like the unwise "pants on fire" maneuver and the tongue-burning "human pepper spray" (as pioneered by Jackie Chan in Project A Part 2). The movie's modesty and proud nationalism are reflected in a climactic three-wheeled tuk-tuk chase. Basic as the movie is, it bursts with ethnographic pride and color, and it is entertaining from the opening sequence of villagers raining from a tall lone tree as they play a ritual game of capture the flag all the way to the finale, a strangely haunting underwater fight among a grotto of Buddhas hidden under a fishing net. Note the street graffito, no doubt scrawled by Prachya: "Hi Spielberg, Let's Do It Together!" He could use Spielberg's money—who couldn't?—but he's doing fine on his own.

Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (PG-13; 105 min.), directed by Prachya Pinkaew, written by Pinkaew and Panna Rittikrai, photographed by Nattawuk Kittikhun and starring Tony Jaa, opens Friday at selected theaters.

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From the February 9-15, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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