There are stuntmen in Thailand willing to do ridiculous things without wires, motion-capture suits, or green screens helping them out. In Born to Fight, that meant fighting atop moving trucks. In Ong-Bak 2, that meant running on the backs of moving elephants. And in 2003's original Ong-Bak, that meant a holy-shit-per-minute ratio that few American movies would ever even attempt. Things happen in Ong-Bak that even the most gung-ho kamikaze psychopath American stuntman would never conceive of; watching it even a decade later, it's incredible that nobody died making it.
Tony Jaa, the movie's star and reason for existence, doesn't look like much. He's slight, with big, surprised eyes and a floppy hair-tangle. But every one of his fights looks like pure death. His fighting style, and the style of most of his opponents in the movie, is Muay Thai, an especially brutal discipline that revolves around hard-ass hammer-blows with elbows and knees. As a culture, we're probably a little more used to the style now than in 2003: Plenty of UFC guys use little elements of it, and it was a big part of CM Punk's gimmick when he first came to the WWE. But exposure hasn't dulled its impact, and when Jaa's flying knee caroms off an anonymous thug's face, you wince hard.
Jaa is a human special effect even when he isn't fighting. In one early chase scene through an outdoor market, we see him leaping over and sliding under cars, high-stepping across hot chicken grills, and hurtling through a tiny barbed-wire hoop in a way that doesn't seem like it should be physically possible. Later, there's another chase, one that involves a couple dozen of the tiny golf-cart-looking three-wheeled rickshaw cabs that Wikipedia tells me are called tuk-tuks, and we see Jaa jumping between them as they move at top speed.
In American movies, directors lately like to use shaky handheld cameras and chaotic editing, partly because of the idea that it heightens the you-are-there immediacy, but also partly to disguise the fact that Matt Damon does not, in fact, know how to kill a man with a rolled-up magazine. But Ong-Bak director Prachya Pinkaew takes the opposite approach. He wants you to see everything Jaa is doing as clearly as possible, holding the camera on him for long takes and keeping his cinematography crisp and calm. This is, in fact, the rare movie with instant replays. When something especially incredible happens—Jaa, on the run from Bangkok criminals, somersaulting sideways between two giant panes of glass without breaking stride—Pinkaew will run it back and show the exact same stunt from another angle, just to assure you that yes, you did just fucking see that.
You'll notice that I haven't mentioned the movie's plot yet. That's not an accident. Don't worry about the movie's plot. It shouldn't concern you. Or, OK, fine: Jaa stars as Ting, a naive village bumpkin in some far-flung province. When criminals steal his town's apparently extremely important ceremonial Buddha head, everyone in the town thinks that famine will befall them if they don't get it back, so Jaa goes to the big city to hunt it down. Early in the movie, we see Jaa practicing his moves, doing that great martial-arts movie thing where he yells the names of the moves as he does them. And this time around, the moves all have amazing names: "Wave Smashing the Shore! Meeting a Friend! Knight Catching Monkeys!" His master then tells him that now that he's good at Muay Thai, he should never actually use it, because it's too dangerous. This issue thankfully never comes up again: Jaa uses the shit out of Muay Thai and doesn't appear to feel bad about it.
So when he gets to town, he meets up with a guy from his hometown who's now a skeezy con man and pretends to have no idea what Jaa is talking about. (He's "George" in the version on Netflix, but some translations have him named "Dirty Balls," so let's all agree to call him Dirty Balls.) Grating comic relief is usually a big part of movies like this, and it's here, too. But I like the dynamic between Jaa and Dirty Balls. The latter keeps trying to figure out ways to get money out of the former, and the lightbulb above his head when Jaa turns out to be great at fighting is pretty fun. A melodramatic subplot about a girl who overdoses is thankfully mostly edited out of the American version of the movie, and I wish they'd done the same with Dirty Balls' screeching teen-girl sidekick, but at least a few of the comedy scenes don't make me want to bury my elbow in my own forehead.
The movie's villain is a crime boss whose nefarious empire, luckily enough, seems to mostly involve stolen historical goods and underground fight clubs. So the movie's best scene is the one where Jaa ends up fighting every cartoon nut-job in the fight club, finally winning the audience's love. The scene makes little-to-no narrative sense and doesn't have much to do with the main storyline, but it's a piece of art by itself. Here, watch:
If you're making a martial arts movie, and it doesn't have at least one henchman named Mad Dog, you're doing it wrong.
There are some fun peripheral details in the movie. The crime boss has a tracheal ring and a voice box, and he uses it not just for speaking, but also for evil laughter. (Plus he smokes cigarettes out of the hole in his neck, which is maybe the nastiest stunt in the movie.) One henchman has a poster of the Brad Pitt movie Spy Game on his wall. Another shoots himself up with a gallon of steroids before fighting Jaa. But there's really one reason to watch Ong-Bak: You get to see so much Tony Jaa kicking people. That's it. That's enough.
Note: The movie's two sequels are streaming on Netflix, and you really don't need to bother. Inexplicably, they're set a hundred years in the past, and they have vampires. The fights are amazing, but the plot is so confused that your brain will be in too many knots to properly appreciate them. Instead, you're better off watching The Protector (which has the same plot as Ong-Bak, except with a live elephant instead of a Buddha head) or just waiting for Jaa to show up in the next Fast & Furious movie, in which he will hopefully kick a car in half.
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.