Ong-Bak is the latest movie from established Thai director Prachya Pinkaew, and is unashamedly designed as a vehicle for Tony Jaa. It's also a well-made, well-shot film with excellent fight choreography from former action star and Jaa mentor, Phanna Rithikrai. Which is no doubt why French auteur and arts-martiaux-phile Luc Besson (Jet Li's Kiss of the Dragon) purchased the international distribution rights. A hit in France, it wowed the US and now gets a more limited UK release.
So what's it all about? The off-the-peg plot is a staple of eastern-pride martial arts movies. The titular Ong-Bak, a Buddha statue from a Thai village, is pinched by unscrupulous treasure-sellers. Local boy Ting sets off to get it back. Fortunately, he's a student of the highly distinctive and devastating art of Muay Thai. The trail leads to Bangkok and some literally stunning fight sequences and an amazing tuk-tuk chase – the three-wheeled Thai transports careering in ways that make you glad you're not a stuntman. An on-foot comedy chase through a market is pure Chan – our hero jumping through barbed wire hoops, between panes of glass and running along the shoulders of his pursuers. The director's use of triple camera angle repeats is both necessary – did Jaa really perform those kicks with legs aflame? – and a further tribute to Chan, who invented the ruse.
It's a good time for eastern action movies with a swathe of directors putting the art back into martial arts. But Ong-Bak isn't as beautiful as Zhang Yimou's Hero/House of Flying Daggers, as spiritual as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or as funny as any Chan. It's frequently bone-crunchingly violent. There are no wires, no special effects. This is just Tony Jaa doing what he does best - and more aesthetically than all The Rocks, Van Dammes and Steven Seagals put together. Watching Ong-Bak is like seeing Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan for the first time – which is not surprising since they're Jaa's boyhood inspiration.
So, is Jaa the next Jackie Chan? On the showing of Ong-Bak, he can certainly cut the physical mustard. It remains to be seen whether he can match Jackie's crowd-pleasing originality. But make no mistake, in the list of great martial arts movies, Ong-Bak is immediately up there with Lee's Enter the Dragon and Chan's Police Story or Project A. And that doesn't happen every day either.