That Tony Jaa is a force of nature is beyond dispute. Surely he has the capacity to become a star of at least Jet Li’s magnitude, and if all else fails, he can get a job at any circus in any town. It’s that impressive, his stunts — unassisted by computers or camera tricks, the advertising brags — on par with anything Jackie Chan did in his heyday, and his fighting style considerably more merciless and brutal. When he does something amazing, it’s out of necessity rather than a desire to wow someone.
It is easy, then, to say that Jaa’s breakthrough feature Ong-Bak will “appeal to martial arts fans,” but I am not so sure that’s true. As a fan of the genre, though not a connoisseur, I was frustrated by the way the film toed the line between self-parody and playing it straight. Jaa has the chops to make either approach work on its own, but the movie wants to have it both ways; the result is schizophrenic and rather tedious.
Many of the fight scenes, you see, have a genuine visceral effect — they’re not just amusing larks in the vein of Chan’s Hollywood work, but fierce bursts of action with the capacity to shock, raise the pulse and make you recoil. This stands in stark contrast to the plot itself, which is ridiculous in a half-oblivious way: it seems to know that a villager’s quest to recover the head of a Buddha statue isn’t the stuff that dreams are made of, but at the same time, I got the impression that Ong-Bak was trying to pay homage to Bruce Lee films in a mostly serious way. To put it another way, the movie knows that its story is absurd and uncreative, but asks us to take it at face value anyway.
The impact of this is two-fold. To begin with, all peripheral and dialogue scenes are rendered laughable, and we soon start biding our time waiting for the next action scene to explode. There isn’t a single compelling character — the hero is merely stoic and invincible, the primary villain is just your run-of-the-mill wheelchair-bound maniac, and the supporting characters are silly caricatures. This would not be fatal but for the fact that it dulls the force of the otherwise spectacular fight scenes, which are much darker in tone. When we realize that they are doomed to lead to nothing, they don’t seem quite as cool somehow.
Stylistically, first-time director Prachya Pinkaew makes one major stylistic blunder, namely the ludicrous instant replays that all too often accompany Jaa’s best stunts. The problem is that they’re exactly that — instant replays, designed to give us a better look at the amazing feat of acrobatics just performed, often in slow motion. As such, it’s not even a “stylistic” choice but rather a purely utilitarian measure that backfires by seriously disrupting the momentum of the action. I would love to see what a more accomplished filmmaker could have done with Jaa’s physicality.
For the pure “wow” factor, though, it’s hard to do better than this — it’s essentially the equivalent of a very violent Cirque du Soleil. I do wish Jaa’s persona were more interesting; I grow weary of nonviolent martial arts masters who will patiently avoid a fight until the last possible moment — can’t we, for once, have a hero who is eager to kick ass? And I would have liked a more consistent, more decisive movie, one that knows what it wants to do and does it with some confidence. But maybe we’ll get to see these things. I have the feeling we’ll be hearing from Tony Jaa again.