Synopsis: Set in present day Thailand, Ting (Tony Jaa) is an orphan, raised by a village monk and trained in the martial art of Muay Thai. His mentor urges Ting not to use this deadly art form for fun. However, when the head of the village’s sacred Buddha statue Ong Bak is severed and stolen by a lowlife drug dealer, Ting takes on the mission of going to Bangkok in order to retrieve it. Ting is a country bumpkin in a big city and his efforts to enlist the help of a childhood acquaintance, George, backfire when it turns out that George is only interested in turning fast bets in order to make money to pay his many debts. In the illegal fighting parlours of the underworld, Ting’s promise to never fight must be abandoned to help innocent people and get him closer to the stone head he needs to find. A simple retrieval mission turns even more dangerous when they cross Komtuan, a kingpin of the underworld with enough power to crush them all.
Review: First of all, let me start by saying there is a European release of this movie and a Thai version. I’ve seen both and I prefer the Thai one. There are extra scenes that make certain parts of the movie make more sense such as the relationship between two of the female characters in the movie and fleshes out the main female character Muay. The soundtracks differ and the European version tends to show many of the stunts twice in case you DIDN’T SEE THAT AWESOME THING TONY JAA JUST DID. I kind of found it to be annoying but it brings me to my second ‘of all.’
Second of all, Ong Bak was made in part to show off the martial art of Muay Thai AND show off how good Tony Jaa is at it. Tony Jaa is an amazing martial artist and Onk Bag is kind of like a resume. No wires, no tricks, everything is just Tony Jaa jumping and elbowing and kicking and being virtually unstoppable. Muay Thai is awesome. Traditional Muay Thai training involves kicking coconut trees. People are going to break. Did I mention Muay Thai is awesome?
The plot of Ong Bak is formulaic. Thing get stolen, guy goes to get it, gets comrades, is thwarted along the way but is triumphant. Ting is a good guy. The trope of ‘country hillbilly in the city’ is used and George tries to take advantage of Ting’s good heart and ignorance. When Ting throws the first punch it isn’t because he wants to show off. It’s because he is attacked or innocent people are being hurt. While the main plot is about Ting getting the head back and having to fight a lot of guys along the way, the character that changes the most is George. Caught up in illegal activities and owing many bad people money, he has a hard time getting fully on board with Ting’s mission but after many false starts and broken promises, George commits to Ting and their village.
Being that the movie is made to show off the fight scenes, they are awesome and brutal. Muay Thai dominates the fighting styles, able to defeat strong opponents, fast opponents and incredibly stupid ones whose fighting style seems to be picking up furniture and hurling it at Tony Jaa (yes, this happens. It’s kind of banal to watch but watching Tony shrug off a refrigerator being thrown at him is kind of bad ass). Flying leaps, kicks, elbows and even weapons are used by Ting to retrieve the head of Ong Bak. In addition to the incredible fights and stunts, it has one of the best car chase scenes ever, where a gang chases Ting and George on tuk-tuks (auto-rickshaws. Not even kidding). Plus the main villain is kind of awesome in his non-conformity. He’s an wheelchair bound old man who has to use an electrolarynx to talk. He’s VERY powerful and goes so far as to say that he is more powerful than Buddha, who is just a rock. And just because he’s in a wheelchair doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a collection of fighters to throw at Ting and George to keep them from getting back the head of Ong Bak.
For Gamers: Ong Bak kind of plays out like a one shot. Go get the thing! Okay. But between the mission being given and the retrieval, there is a decent amount of gaming fodder. While Ting is off trying to retrieve the head of Ong Bak, the town is wasting away. The water starts diminishing in the wells because of the desecration of a statue which is a pretty good reason to get the head back. Bring it back or the people in the village will continue to suffer. Nobody says what exactly what will happen if the head isn’t brought back before the Ong Bak festival but well, it can’t be good.
Reasons for why people of different life paths (and alignments, if that’s your thing) are given. George and Ting are from the same village, though George tries to deny it; Ting recognizes him by his accent. Muay works with George because she has school bills to pay and he’s willing to work with her on scams to get them both the baht they need (though George seems to want to withhold most of the earnings). George works with Muay because as a young girl, people underestimate her which he can then cash in on. George sticks with Ting because he realizes he can cash in on his abilities but later has a change of heart and genuinely wishes to help Ting and his childhood village. And pushing them forward is the fact that Ting needs to get the head back before the Ong Bak festival in his village. Investing the characters in each other, rather than the mission is a good way to get the party on the road.
Different fighting styles are shown with Muay Thai coming out on top but the idea of what fighting styles have what going for them and how they measure up when they are pitted against each other is one to consider. Agility vs. Strength vs. Speed makes it more than just wearing each other down. The setting of an underground boxing match is also worth exploring. All kinds of activities could happen in a crowded, underground area. Tourists of all guises and nationalities flock there, some for entertainment, some to take part in more illicit activities. Bets are made and people cheer while crimelords make plans, drugs are sold and connections made. It’s cramped, it’s hot, it’s exciting and it’s illegal. When the cops are on their way, everyone scatters.
The BBEG Komtuan is non-conventional. He’s old. He’s in a wheelchair. He talks with an electrolarynx. But people listen to him. They do what he says. I found myself wondering what he had been involved in during his life that he considers himself more powerful than Buddha. No one seems to disagree with him. He obviously has a great deal of money, considering the bets he makes during the fight scenes. And he’s smart as well as able to organize the people who work under him; no other ‘administration’ is shown. It’s Komtuan and a bunch of thugs, basically. He is hardly the scarred, seasoned general with a flaming sword at his side or a meticulous lich lord with a spellbook crafted in the skin of fetal faeries.
Something that works well for the movie that could be fun to try to replicate are the chase scenes. Ting, George and Muay all have to split up when the underworld proves just how small it is. Instead of duking it out the party runs and the chase is fun to watch. If anyone could think of a fun way to do a chase that isn’t tedious, it’s a great way to save your hit points for the big fight. Not everything needs to be solved with fisticuffs.
That being said, Tony Jaa spin kicks some guy while his legs are on fire. How bad ass is that?
Ong Bak is fun to watch for the sweet action scenes. Within the scope of the Ong Bak trilogy, I found it to be the least interesting storywise. The idea of using reincarnation and karma in a story has a lot of fodder for multiple campaigns but it isn’t the focus of the first Ong Bak. I’ll keep rewatching it for the elbows and knees, and the crazy ass car chase. Muay Thai on the big screen? Not going to complain. If you just like martial arts flicks and are not familiar with this martial art, it’s a must see. Also, it made me hope that a certain RPG that is coming out with a new version sometime soon will realize that you don’t need weapons to be a bad ass fighter.