Ong Bak (retrospective, part 2)

The conflict finally comes to a head.

No one image could sum up the movie better.

No one image could sum up the movie better.

After the bravura sequence where Ting fights three contenders in quick succession, there’s some silliness involving an extended chase on auto-rickshaws (golf carts, basically) that’s kind of cute but really out of place in a martial arts movie. Then Ting accidentally finds some of the stash of Komtuan (the villain), whose main gig seems to be stealing or unearthing religious relics and selling them. He tells Ting he’ll return Ong Bak if Ting fights a traditional Muay Thai bout with Saming, the villain’s Dragon and a fierce fighter himself. Ting readily agrees.

5) Ting vs Saming

Ting Fights: Saming, of course. He’s young, buff, really mean-looking, and basically a total psychopath. Before the match he’s seen injecting himself with a needleful of an unidentified substance that apparently makes him stronger or more pain-resistant or something. It’s completely ridiculous that such a wonder drug would exist (maybe it’s the same venom that Bane uses), but it’s a well-established cheesy action movie trope– much like how in older dramas, blind folks were always one “big operation” away from regaining their sight. Played by Chattapong Pantana-Angkul. Trying saying that five times fast. Or even once at normal speed.

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The Fight: Almost completely one-sided. Komtuan asserts later that Ting deliberately threw the fight, though it looks like he’s struggling mightily here regardless. He could be faking the struggle and still taking a dive, but either way, between the drugs and the maybe-faking, Ting doesn’t really put a dent in his villainous opponent, and he definitely takes a brutal beating himself.

Saming first invites Ting to take several shots at him, and Ting delivers several strong-looking punches & kicks that Saming just shrugs off. When the bad guy fights back, he hits with devastating power.

Saming quickly knocks down the hero, and finishes off the round with a couple of devastating knee drives right into his mid-section– this could kill a man in real life.

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Ting’s corner man tries to haul him off to recover, but Saming pursues even then and keeps wailing on him; it’s pretty clear that whatever aggression he usually has is amplified greatly by his Magical Movie Drug.

Ting rallies back briefly but is quickly beat down some more, even getting hit by a vicious clothesline that sends him spinning through the air an absurd number of times.

Humlae tries throwing in the towel, but Saming won’t take no for an answer and keeps up the beating. He does a running knee so hard that it knocks the hero out of the ring and onto the announcers’ table. He then pursues AGAIN and kicks the fallen Ting in the chest for good measure. That’s about the end of things.

One-sided fights are rarely all that interesting, but this one gains some extra points just for its sheer brutality and Saming’s unrestrained craziness. It serves mainly as a bit of darkening plot material, giving the hero a major stumble and obstacle before he is able to return triumphantly. And fortunately it’s smart enough enough to get its ugly business over with quickly.

Grade: B-

6) Gas Station Brawl

It is not, despite what this picture would imply, a poorly-attended daytime rave.

It is not, despite what this picture would imply, a poorly-attended daytime rave.

Ting Fights: A handful of Komtuan’s goons. After the fight, Ting & Humlae met up with the villain at an abandoned gas station in order to get Ong Bak’s head back. Of course, he reneges on the deal, and presents them with an empty box. Then he has his thugs hold the two at gunpoint and prepare to kill them while he leaves, for some reason. Don’t bad guys know you ALWAYS stay around to make sure the hero gets finished off? It’s like they don’t even watch movies.

The Fight: Ting manages to turn things around pretty well. A few goons stay inside to finish the job while a few others wait outside. Ting waits until the one who’s holding him face down tries to apply a silencer to his pistol (why? They’re in the middle of nowhere), then whips up and starts beating the guy. With some assistance from Humlae, they soon take out all the goons inside. At one point Ting punches a guy so hard that his face smacks hilariously against a wooden table.

The real fun starts when they get outside. The villains eventually figure out that all the noise they hear in the building isn’t good (their biggest hint is one of their buddies get kicked through the door), but when they check the room, Ting has apparently slipped out the window. He cancels out the gun advantage of one thug, who was waiting in the driver’s seat side of a truck, by jumping so hard at the truck’s open door that the force of it closing knocks him all the way through to the other side.

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At least two more guys nearby have guns, though, so Ting avoids them by hiding amongst a bunch of wreckage off to the side. Their shots end up striking a drum full of oil and creating a significant explosion. As they approach looking for Ting, the hero suddenly emerges from the smoke with both of his legs on fire, and takes out the nearest one with a flying knee followed by a kick to the face. While, I’ll remind you, HIS LEGS ARE ON FIRE.

I'll also remind you that Tony Jaa did all his own stunts.

I’ll also remind you that Tony Jaa did all his own stunts.

Ting immediately jumps into a conveniently-located tub full of water, but is soon attacked from behind by another thug, who tries to choke him. Ting breaks free and immediately puts him down with a spinning flip. Possibly the most unrealistic moment in this movie is that the second bad guy actually had the presence of mind to attack Ting, rather than just standing there slack-jawed while going “THAT WAS THE COOLEST THING I’VE EVER SEEN”

Instead, he just had to kill the moment, so this happened to him.

This is what happens to buzz kills.

Ting and Humlae then take out the last jerk just before he escapes on a motorcycle. Just before the thug passes out, Ting gets Ong Bak’s location from him.

A fun and breezy bounce back from the ugly beating Ting took last time (really, he should be in the hospital), something which both the music and the staging reflects. There is some solid physical choreography here but really the martial arts takes a backseat to outrageous stunts for this scene.

In conclusion, Tony Jaa set his legs on fire.

Grade: A-

7) Cave Rumble, part I

Ting Fights: A handful of Komtuan’s goons. Well, two handfuls: Ting sneaks up to the entrance of the cave where there’s four chumps with guns, but he takes them out so quickly it doesn’t really count.

Here, now you've pretty much watched it.

Here, now you’ve pretty much watched it.

Then not far into the cave, he runs into some tougher resistance. For some reason almost all of them are armed with machetes, odd implements for a digging crew.

The Fight: The hero is immediately ambushed by the half dozen or so machete-wielding fools, and he soon grabs a long pole– between the pole’s appearance and the odd sounds it makes when struck, it’s hard to tell if it’s wooden or metal or what– and evens the odds. He smacks them around with the improvised staff for a while, but eventually it gets hit hard enough to break in half. Naturally, Ting just immediately adapts and fights with two sticks– escrima– for a while.

Then he trades that for one of his foes’ dropped machetes, but apparently his inner pacifism takes over and he discards that as well. That leaves him unarmed against a couple lingering thugs, but fortunately he finds a few tonfa, or at least some sort of implement that can substitute for them. Tonfa are almost tailor-made for Muay Thai’s elbow-heavy style, so the rest of this particular ass-beating is like Christmas for Ting.

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That pretty much finishes up this batch, as well as a few late-comers. The last chump is apparently the smartest, since he just up & runs away.

Once again Prinkaew and Jaa have changed up things a bit, this time by showcasing a weapons-heavy fight. And quite a variety of weapons at that: swords against unarmed, staff against swords, escrima against swords, sword against sword, tonfa against sword. And since the alley chase doesn’t really count, this is the first time in the movie Ting has taken on such a large amount of people in close quarters at once. Some cracks are starting to show in the choreography, namely when you can see a few instances of stuntmen moving their bodies into position to receive the simulated blows (the fact that Prinkaew keeps switching to slow motion makes it even more apparent).

Still, it’s an ambitious & fun scene, and nobody’s perfect. Jaa’s performance has the character more determined & fierce than ever. He’s a man on a mission, and this mission is just getting started.

Grade: B+

After this, Ting makes the inexplicable decision not to take ANY of the weapons he’d been using into the next room. Apparently every fight for him is like a whole new video game is for Samus Aran. Anyway, he goes deeper into the cave and discovers Komtuan and Saming high up on some scaffolding, waiting as their crew saws through the neck of an enormous Buddha statue. Komtuan sees Ting and taunts him with Ong Bak’s own head, which he has handy next to him in a bag for some reason. But first the hero has to get through….

8) Cave Rumble, part II

Ting Fights: Another half-dozen or so of the gangster’s thugs. Some of them are even wearing flak vests, for some unknown reason. And at least one of them is not a native Thai but a white guy, so points to the villain for diversity, I suppose.

The Fight: It’s the penultimate battle and the last real melee brawl of the film, so it pulls out all the stops. Unlike last time, weapons are mostly left out (with one notable exception), but the mooks are tougher than ever, and Ting accordingly ups his game with a surprising amount of tricky aerial moves and devastating blows. Some particularly memorable tricks involve Ting laying out two thugs in quick succession with a continuous series of spinning jump kicks, or the time one baddie ducks under a jump kick so Ting just lashes out with his other leg while still airborne.

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It really does take a while for Ting to take all these guys out, though, and you can see him taking a few wallops himself. Sometimes it’s because he’s distracted with one of the other five combatants, but a lot of times he’s simply not ready– the guy’s worn down like nobody’s business. Real-life physical endurance is of course out the door before we started, but Ting’s even pushing past the point of action movie physical endurance.

Our tiring hero gets it worst of all just after he saves Humlae from being hung to death the slow way. The last baddie, who has a glass eye (or maybe it’s just weird-looking), gets ahold of a long, serrated saw and hurts Ting pretty bad with it, first whipping him across the face and back with the flat end, then charging at him with the blade out. With no objects at hand to block with and no time to dodge, Ting is forced to prove the limits of his dedication to rescuing a freaking chunk of stone.

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I’d… I’d say he’s proven it.

They stand off for a little while, until they’re interrupted by Humlae. The eye-guy soon gets the best of the comic relief, though, and breaks his arm in a very painful-looking way. Fortunately, when Ting recovers, he pays the guy back by breaking his leg in an even more painful-looking way.

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Ouch.

As the middle part of the climax, this spout of violence does succeed at continuing to ramp up the action from its already-absurd levels. The weapons-craziness from before has been jettisoned in favor of pure martial artistry, at least until that saw gets whipped out– and oh, how mean that is. All very well done. Except for the music, it doesn’t really work; very light & silly.

Grade: A-

Ting knows the final battle’s coming now, so he takes a quiet moment to himself, wrapping his wounds in tape and putting rope around one fist. Like a man.

9) Cave Rumble, part 3: Ting/Saming rematch

Ting Fights: Saming, duh. Plus a couple goons whose digging he interrupts. Humlae and Komtuan get mixed up in there briefly as well.

The Fight: Whew.

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Either due to his resolve or just not faking it this time (and despite having just exercised enough to drop an elephant), Ting fares WAY better than before. Nevertheless, Saming is still quite fierce, with the two having a nice back & forth. It’s apparent that Ting has the edge, slight though it may be, and he slowly gains the upper hand. Sometimes the two actually just take turns hitting each other, which is so awesome in a very macho & hilarious way.

But Ting only gets more angry, and soon enough he starts willingly absorbing blows without even trying to dodge or counter them– he’s so far into Beast Mode now he may never come back.

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Finally, a double-punch to the head seems to put Saming down for the count. Ting goes up to stop the workers who are still dutifully sawing off the enormous Buddha head, and while he’s beating them up (not too hard), Saming jabs like six needles full of that magic drug into his stomach at once. Ruh roh.

Once Ting finishes up, he comes down to head for Komtuan, and gets blindsided by a flying double-kick to the head (!) from Saming, a blow bad enough it leaves him defenseless against Saming’s assault for a while. The uber-henchman (now red-eyed and even crazier than before) tries to finish Ting off by choking him to death, but just before he blacks out he gazes at the giant stone head, and instantly gains enough BUDDHA POWER that he’s able to break free and put a hurt on Saming. Then, in a moment that would be the insanest part if it happened in most other movies but here it barely cracks the Top 5, the camera zooms in ultra-close on Ting’s eye as it becomes consumed with flame….

It's like he's charging up a super combo in Street Fighter.

Eye of the Thai-ger

… and does a jumping elbow smash on the top of Saming’s head that’s so tough it cracks his skull open.

"I've got a SPLITTING headache!"

“I’ve got a SPLITTING headache!”

I mean… damn.

Saming collapses under the impact of Ting’s Limit Break, but when the hero turns his attention to the mastermind once more, the villain calmly produces a gun and shoots him through the shoulder. He had that gun the whole time and he didn’t use it? What the crap?!

One-armed Humlae then shows up and has a brief tussle with Komtuan that involes the villain getting knocked out of his wheelchair and the comic relief taking repeat sledgehammer blows to the face & torso in order to protect Ong Bak’s head. Meanwhile, Saming, never one to let a fight go the first or second time it’s over (whether he won or lost) comes back for some more, necessitating Ting to put him down by doing a knees-first jump into his stomach that crashes them both through the entire scaffolding.

"GERONIMO!"

“GERONIMO!”

From the bottom floor, Ting can’t do much to help his friend, but a little Buddha ex machina steps in, as the enormous stone neck finally gives away, letting the head fall off onto the evil & blasphemous villain (Humlae rolls away to relative safety, but dies of his wounds soon after anyway). The word “karma” doesn’t flash in huge letters on the screen, but it might as well.

It’s not quite mind-blowing, but still an appropriate finish to a series of dazzling setpieces– remember, the last four or five fights happen practically back-to-back. If anything the last battle might suffer a bit because the viewer is just plain fatigued by a solid 30 minutes of climax. Err, you know what I mean.

Grade: A-

Well, that’s Ong Bak, one of the more impressive debut films in recent martial arts history. It’s not perfect but it’s a shame we don’t see more like it. Perhaps one day Tony Jaa will team up with the guys who made The Raid and all our heads will never stop exploding, but until then we can only hope.

Recommended Links: The one & only Seanbaby on the absurdity that is Ong Bak’s first sequel. “Luckily, all Thai hospitals have a Tony Jaa wing where they treat victims of Tony Jaa.” I certainly hope so.

Coming Attractions: Come out to play.

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