In 2003 a little film from Thailand known as Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior drew a fair amount of attention here in the States. It had a very modest showing in theaters, but when it hit DVD the title's fan-base grew exponentially. Lovers of foreign and domestic action films raved about the movie's riveting chase scenes and astounding feats of Muay Thai provided by none other than newcomer Tony Jaa, who was thrust into the spotlight with this production.
We've all seen Jackie Chan and Jet Li movies, but Jaa took things to a new level. When watching Ong Bak you have to keep in mind the fact that Jaa isn't using any stunt doubles and every thing you see him do is all his own skill. Sure this may not be anything new to lovers of foreign action flicks, but Jaa gets into some pretty dangerous stuff here. The end result was a movie that felt much rawer than it should have and the use of Muay Thai really upped the visceral nature of the fight scenes, no matter how rehearsed they may have been.
I don't know about you, but wire-fu movies have gotten to a point of oversaturation. Sitting through "action movies" where the main character runs atop a tree or jumps twenty feet in the air just feels cheesy. It's unnatural no matter how you slice it and, in my case, it typically removes me from the action (sorry Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). That's what's so refreshing about Ong Bak. Everything has an old-school feel with so much grit and style you'll wince when you see someone take a beating from Jaa.
To set up the elbow and knee bashing fightfest we are taken to the small village of Nong Pradu. These folk are quite removed from the hustle and bustle found in Bangkok and are often referred to as hillbillies (and not quite the Beverly type either). When a sleazy guy named Don comes to town and steals the head of Ong Bak (Nong Pradu's Buddha) its up to Ting (Jaa) to get it back before the village is doomed from drought. After bestowing Ting with all of their wealth the village hero heads to Bangkok where he runs into Humlae (Mum Jokemok) and his younger sister Muay (Pumwaree Yodkamol).
Humlae is also from Nong Pradu but refuses to face his past and acknowledge his roots. Instead he's a rather scummy character that would rather exploit Ting's fighting abilities for his own personal gain. Inevitably the trio find themselves caught up in crime of a much grander scale than a lone Buddha head and it's up to Ting to battle his way to the top. Unfortunately for Ong Bak the lead bad guy is an old man in a wheel chair with a voice box. I just have a hard time buying this guy as being all that scary and influential enough to be the big kahuna. He's just so out of place in a movie like this that it's almost funny, though that actually doesn't stop one from wanting to see Ting kick him in the head.
While Jaa doles out a solid performance as Ting, much of the supporting cast feels like they're just kind of there. The bad guys have a cheesy I'm-in-a-1980's-action-b-movie attitude about them that makes it hard to take them seriously, but it works well to add some humor at the very least. I never found myself liking Humlae's character at any point in the film and honestly I think the movie would have been better off without him. Also, the character of Muay is cute and all, but her voice sounds like a Thai version of Fran Drescher on helium; it's almost unbearable.
Questionable plot lines, and one dimensional, uninteresting characters aside, there are a lot of breathtaking martial arts scenes in Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior. The sheer athleticism of Jaa will leave your jaw hanging and your mind reeling. He's really that good. Sadly, while he performs his own stunts, he doesn't have the charisma of Jackie Chan or the screen presence of Jet Li. Maybe he just needs more time in front of the camera, or maybe he's just more athlete than actor. Whatever the case may be, whether he's leaping through barbed wire, jumping over cars or just kicking the crap out of someone, Jaa looks right at home doing it.
Most of the film is shot creatively with skewed camera angles during the more visual and dramatic moments. I suppose that's the substitute for stunt men, wires and special effects and for the most part it works well. What bothered me about each action scene was that fact that nearly every cool thing Jaa did was repeated a second (or third) time from a different angle. Once or twice in a movie for effect isn't really a bad thing, but when it happens three times in the same sequence you know you're doing it a little too much.
Ultimately you're going to watch Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior for the core action and not much else. The plot is paper thin at best, predictable, and even though it serves a purpose it gets deeply outshined by the finesse of Jaa's athletics. After watching this movie you have to feel for the crew considering the beating that they apparently took. A few loose teeth and some broken bones are a small price to pay for box office and home video success though right?
Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior is presented on Blu-ray with its original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio. The film lands on a BD25 disc with 1080p resolution and employs an AVC codec at 18Mbps. With those figures in mind one would think that the film would look much better than the previous disappointing standard definition DVD. Unfortunately that's not the case and fans who were hoping for an upgrade are going to be greatly dissatisfied.
The transfer for Ong Bak's Blu-ray falls short of nearly every expectation. For starters the color palette is off and tones, contrast, and lighting continuously changes from scene to scene. Black levels are deep for the most part, but shadows are often muddied by blocking and colors that shouldn't be there bleed into them. A halo surrounds just about everything and you never get a crisp, clean bit of detail on any figure. The image just loses distinctiveness frequently and the picture comes across as painfully flat and muddied. Add to all of this the presence of grain and compression artifacts and you have a sloppy mess of a transfer.
In comparison I'd say the quality here is marginally better than the original DVD, but when held up to Blu-ray standards it fails miserably. Some scenes are far better than others, but they don't change the fact that the transfer features extensive flaws.
After the disappointing video quality it should be noted that the audio package here is better by comparison, but it's still nothing to get excited about. English and Thai 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio are included here and in some respects they are a step up from the experience we had with the DVD. Both tracks offer some diversity in the soundstage with ambient noise filtering through to the rear channels. The soundtrack and effects come through each channel as well, though they feel a little flatter this time around. Dialogue feels front-centric and lacks a dynamic presence as well. The balance here trends to lean towards the overbearing hip hop track more than anything else, though that feels like part of the design of the film.
As far as dubbing quality is concerned the original Thai is pretty much the only way to experience the film in my opinion. No matter how you slice it the English track is painful and should be ignored. Spanish and English subtitles are included.
The bonus feature selection for this Blu-ray doesn't offer anything new. Everything from the original DVD has been ported over with no exclusive features for this release.
"The Movements of Muay Thai" (1:43) features some maneuvers of the fighting style. It's kind of cool to see, but in context you see all of these moves during the course of the movie and sometimes even find out what they are called. Two French-focused features are included here. One of these is basically a Muay Thai show and tell where Jaa and some stuntmen go to town in front of an audience (2:34). The other French feature is a rap video (Tragedie 'I'm Still Ghetto' Featuring Reed the Weed) with clips from the movie and Jaa doing some martial arts in a ring (4:03).
In addition to these features there's a behind the scenes look at the French rap video (7:14), a promo video with the RZA (1:00), some trailers, and something called the B-Roll (2:33). This last feature pulls three scenes for a closer look at how they were produced. My personal favorite was the scene where Jaa's legs are on fire and you see them actually ignite his pants and he kicks a guy in the head while his feet are on fire. It's absolutely amazing stuff and almost has a Jackass vibe to the stunts that they pull.
Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior remains a kick-ass piece of foreign martial arts cinema. Jaa's athletic performances in this film alone make it worth the price of admission. I was absolutely blown away by the stunts and overall style of the film, but with that being said there really isn't much story here. Sure there's a rudimentary plot, but the support characters are pretty much just targets for Jaa to hit. Don't let that deter you though. This movie is a lot of fun to watch and it's an action-lovers popcorn munching dream.
With that being said this Blu-ray isn't exactly a step up from the DVD. The picture quality is certainly not up to standard for Blu-ray and the audio package doesn't stand out in any way. Seeing Ong Bak in true 1080p with sharp quality would have been a sight to behold. Alas that's not the case. Ultimately whether or not you buy into this release will be based solely on what you're expecting. Recommended for action fans, but everyone else should probably consider it a rental.
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