Kung Fu movies come in one of two flavors. The first being a spectacle of wires and hitting with a cliched story thrown in as an afterthought or as an excuse to move a ripped Asian guy from one fight scene to the next.
The second is the sub-genre perfected by Jackie Chan, where a ripped Asian guy pummels the hell out of some hapless, non-racially denominated goons in a slightly comedic way.
Ong-Bak is an unlikely amalgam of both. Newcomer Tony Jaa stars as the quintessential ripped Asian guy beating a lot of shit out of a lot of people for two hours. Ong-Bak's story is certainly an excuse to move the inhumanly acrobatic Jaa from one sweaty brawl to the next, but the tale isn't completely unoriginal.
Jaa plays the role of Ting, a Thai country boy sent into the big city to recover the missing head of his village's religious idol, Ong-Bak, stolen by gangsters for some reason. Although it's not a premise to write home about, it's more than enough to have Ting befriend gambling addicts, jump on some stuff and elbow a lot of people in the face.
The comic relief in Ong-Bak comes not from a deliberately amusing story, as is often the case with Jackie Chan movies, but rather it embracing the ridiculous. As the film presses on, it becomes more and more apparent both the writer and director knew exactly what kind of movie they were making, and thought it was funny as hell. Ludicrous and even ironic scenes abounds, the film has an entire segment devoted to Jaa running and jumping like he's trapped in Super Mario World.
Director Prachya Pinkaew also engages in the too-funny-to-be-serious practice of showing every cool stunt twice, from two different angles. It was either that or hiring a four year old on a sugar high to stand at the front of the theatre and jump up and down yelling, "Look how cool this is!"
Like any movie falling into the "martial arts" category, the strongest element of Ong-Bak is its action. True to the roots of the genre, Jaa uses no wires, stunt doubles, CG or any other kind of special effects to augment his stunts. Every single act of acrobatic impossibility Jaa performs is actually him performing a physical miracle, like a muscular Asian version of Jesus. This no-nonsense approach to the action, combined with sharp directing gives every bone-crunching knee to the ribs a gritty, visceral feel missing in modern action movies.
Jaa's circus-freak agility is worth the price of admission, but combined with moments of comedy, some brief drama and a whole lot of vicious elbowing, Ong-Bak is easily worthy of multiple viewings. It has been a long time since any movie had one guy creatively hammering on faceless goons for two hours without losing audiences' interest. This is a Kung Fu movie as they were meant to be.