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Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior(2003)
When a sacred Buddha statuette called Ong-bak is stolen from Ting's (Tony Jaa) village by a shady businessman intent on realizing a profit from his ill-gotten gain, Ting takes it upon himself to reclaim the pilfered religious treasure by following the trail of clues to Bangkok. And Ting's the right man for the job, as he possesses an impressive array of Muay Thai fighting skills that can lay out all his adversaries.
For more about Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior and the Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior Blu-ray release, see Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior Blu-ray Review published by Casey Broadwater on February 4, 2010 where this Blu-ray release scored 3.0 out of 5.
Starring: Tony Jaa, Petchtai Wongkamlao, Pumwaree Yodkamol, Rungrawee Borrijindakul, Chetwut Wacharakun, Sukhaaw Phongwilai
Director: Prachya Pinkaew
» See full cast & crew
Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior Blu-ray Review
No wires, no CGI, no problem.
Reviewed by Casey Broadwater, February 4, 2010
It was late 2004, and a friend called me up. "Have you heard of Ong Bak?" he asked. I hadn't. "What are you doing tonight?" He showed up with a bootlegged VCD copy of the film and we popped it into my surprisingly compatible DVD player. The image looked like it had been thrice- duped from a VHS master. It was like looking at a film that had somehow been projected onto murky water. My friend was ecstatic as he led me through the PR bullet points about the film that had been the subject of much internet chatter. No wires, no CGI, no stunt doubles for star Tony Jaa, the heir apparent to the throne of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. "Real hits," he said. I had no idea what to expect. Was this going to be the martial arts equivalent of Faces of Death? In the opening scene, a group of would-be warriors scale a massive tree and play an arboreal version of King of the Mountain. From out of the tree, fighters fall like strange fruit, landing with a sickening thud on the packed earth below. There are no tricky camera angles, no cutaways. These guys are literally falling 20-some feet, risking bruised ribs and broken collarbones. We watched as Tony Jaa scampered up the trunk like a chipmunk, made flying leaps between branches, and nabbed the red scarf at the top of the tree to win the game. We wondered: who is this guy?
He's certainly the one reason to watch Ong Bak. Divorced from Jaa's acrobatic presence, the film would be a stultifying exercise in kung-fu cliché. What the film calls a plot barely qualifies as such, but it's enough of a framework to wrap the non-stop action around. Jaa plays Ting, a priest-in-training in the rural Thai nowheresville of Nong Pradu. When a former villager turned city-boy steals the head of the town's resident Buddha statue—antiquities fetch high prices on the black market—Ting volunteers to go to Bangkok and track it down. It's the old country bumpkin in the big city story, and Ting is taken under the wing of George (Petchtai Wongkamlao), a cousin and two-bit conman with peroxide blond hair. George has been running scams with a lady friend of his, an inconspicuous college student (Pumwaree Yodkamul), but they've amassed quite a debt with the neighborhood drug thug, who is looking to collect. It's pretty simple. Ting is trained in Muay Thai, a lethal form of kickboxing, and there's a lot of money to be made in underground fight clubs. If Ting competes and helps George pay off his debt, George will help him find the stolen Buddha head. This is the impetus for the entire film, which consists of one long fight and/or chase sequence after another, with little breathing room in between.
So, breathless is a good word for Ong Bak, and Tony Jaa's high-flying, skull- busting stunts will likely leave you exhausted. There's not really anything here that we haven't seen before, but the combination of Jaa's Buster Keaton-like grace of movement and the lack of wires or CGI assists makes the action genuinely thrilling. During the back alley chase scene—the film's most frenetic sequence—Jaa dives through a tightly curled loop of barbed wire, vaults over a vat of boiling oil, squeezes between two parallel panes of glass, and tosses raw curry powder into the faces of his pursuers. When they do manage to catch up, he literally leaps skyward and runs across their shoulders while they look on, bewildered. He makes his getaway by sliding underneath a moving SUV and clambering up some scaffolding, seemingly exerting no more effort than you and I would while merely taking a walk. When he's in the ring, squaring off against a hulking Australian or a fleet-footed Japanese, Jaa's motions are crisp and brutal. His specialty is a flying elbow drop to the head that, in my imagination anyway, compresses his opponents' spinal cords and leaves them several inches shorter. The action is intense, but director Prachya Pinkaew and his editors seem much too enamored with their handiwork, too eager to make sure we see every blow. Though the sight of a bad guy getting a foot to the face at high impact velocity is perversely satisfying, seeing it again—and again—in slow motion is a bit much, bringing to mind the cornball editing of Walker, Texas Ranger.
What's a kung-fu film without a little cheese, though, right? Ong Bak never reaches Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky levels of sheer martial arts absurdity, but there are more than a few ridiculous flourishes, like the mob boss who smokes through a stoma and speaks with a monotone electro-larynx voice modulator, or the scene when Ting's shins catch on fire and he proceeds to give one baddie a flaming beat-down. (See the screenshot below.) The irony that all of this violent retribution takes place while Ting is trying to retrieve a serenely smiling bust of Buddha—the very image of peace—is never addressed. And while there is some contrasting of the villages' traditional religiosity with the breakneck atheism of the city, it's never developed enough to be a theme. There's simply no time. Tony Jaa has heads to crack, asses to kick, and audiences to impress. It's imperative to keep him in motion, because when the action dies down, so does his screen presence. Like most martial artists who are fighters first and actors second, Jaa can't quite hold his own in the film's few dramatic beats. But then again, you're probably not watching Jaa for his acting chops.
Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior Blu-ray, Video Quality
"This new, digital transfer of Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior was created at Deluxe Postproduction Toronto from an original 35mm internegative of the film. Color correction, image stabilization, and digital cleaning were facilitated at Deluxe to restore the film and present it in high definition."
So says the "About the Feature Film Transfer" tab on the disc's bonus features menu, but this doesn't exactly explain why Ong Bak looks so terrible on Blu-ray, even considering the film's modest budget. I didn't read the above until after I had viewed the film, and I was actually surprised to find out that Ong Bak was, in fact, shot on 35mm. You'd never guess from the ultra-soft, extra-blurry, super-grainy image produced by this 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer, which looks poor even by 16mm standards. I'm not really sure what went wrong here in the transition from the original masters to the internegative to this digital transfer, but whatever it was, it left the picture in a smeary, indistinct mess. Fine detail is practically non-existent throughout, even in the tightest close-ups. Take the first scene—the tree fight—for example. The edges of the leaves and branches blur together almost like dampened lines in a watercolor painting. When we move into a closer shot of the fighters, there's hardly any definition in the mud caking their skin, a texture that would normally be quite distinct. Colors are equally weak, and seem sapped of intensity by an oppressive yellowish/brownish cast that covers all but the brightest daytime scenes. While black levels are deep, shadow detail is crushed regularly, and contrast is bland. You'll also notice some pixilation in the colors surrounding light sources, especially in the sky. The image looks bad in general, but certain shots look even worse, with intense grittiness, washed out colors, and a gauzy softness that makes the picture look like it was smeared with Vaseline. I never saw the film in theaters, so I can't comment on what it was like on the big screen, but it had to look better than this.
Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior Blu-ray, Audio Quality
Ong Bak arrives on Blu-ray with two DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround tracks, the original Thai language mix and an English dub. Except for the voices, they're nearly identical, with a surprisingly front-centric presence that leaves the rear channels in torpor for most of the film. You'll hear some occasional crowd ambience, some street sounds, and rural bird and insect noises, but that's about it in terms of immersion. Actually, if there's one thing that I noticed about the track, it's that it frequently uses loud hip-hop-ish music to distract from the fact that there's hardly any sound design at all. During the fight sequences, you'll hear all the big body blows—which sound canned—but the rest of the audio is conspicuously empty. The music is the most potent part of the mix, then, and it sounds decent, with lots of pulsing low-end bass and crisp digital drum hits. Most of the dialogue in the Thai mix seems to have been rerecorded in post-production—it has a slightly artificial quality—and the English dub is unintentionally funny most of the time. The overall effect is that the film sounds older than its age, like a kung-fu flick from the '70s.
Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior Blu-ray, Special Features and Extras
Live Tony Jaa and Stuntmen Performance (SD, 2:34)
Here we see Jaa pull off some of his incredible acrobatic moves after the French premiere of Ong Bak.
The Movements of Muay Thai (SD, 1:43)
These brief clips illustrate some of the moves from the film, with cool names like "Elephant Pulverizing Tree" and "Knight Throwing an Ax."
French Rap Music Video with Tony Jaa (SD, 4:03)
Jaa cameos in this video by rap group Tragedie, which, as expected, includes lots of clips from Ong Bak.
Making of Music Video (SD, 7:14)
Those mourning the lack of any behind-the-scenes featurettes for the film will take small consolation in this "making of" documentary for the included music video. I can't say this was very interesting, but the director's name is Olivier Megaton, which is amusing for a few seconds.
Selected B-Roll (SD, 2:33)
Here we some excised excerpts from the taxi stunts, the "legs ablaze" fight sequence, and the arena fight.
Promo Video Featuring The RZA (SD, 1:00)
This is pretty funny. The RZA interrupts a staged street fight and introduces Ong Bak to everyone.
Includes the teaser trailer, a trailer featuring The Rza, the Thai teaser, the Thai trailer, the French teaser, and the French trailer.
Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior Blu-ray, Overall Score and Recommendation
Is Ong Bak balls-to-the-wall, edge-of-your-seat entertainment? Initially, yes. Tony Jaa is a true sight to see, leaping over gangsters in a single bound and landing devastating roundhouse kicks. After a while, though, the nonstop pummeling gets tiresome—and repetitive. The film also takes a bit of a bruising on Blu-ray, with a transfer that's not worthy of being called high definition and an audio track that's merely adequate. Martial arts fanatics will probably want Ong Bak on their shelves, but casual fans should venture a rental first. Stay tuned tomorrow for our review of the prequel, Ong Bak 2, which looks to be a much better all-around package.
Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior Blu-ray, News and Updates
• Ong Bak Blu-ray Announced - January 21, 2010
Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment has announced the Blu-ray release of the Thai martial arts movie 'Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior' on February 2, thus tying in with the release of its prequel, 'Ong Bak 2: The Beginning', by Magnolia Home Entertainment. Audio ...
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