If you’re a hardcore fan of modern martial arts cinema, chances are the U.S. theatrical arrival of Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior—the well-oiled free-for-all of skull-jarring elbow blows and solar-plexus-shattering kickboxing stunts that came in second in the 2003 Bangkok box office sweepstakes—will strike you as yesterday’s news. It’s been hyped for the last 20 months with a string of prominent festival screenings, and DVD copies are widely available across the Internet. Ong-Bak‘s nonstop muscle-and-yuks marathon, in which “Tony Jaa” (screen name of Phanom Yeerum, the rising star Siam hopes will prove its homegrown Jet Li) arrives in Bangkok and begins putting the flying foot stomp on a global array of potato-faced thugs who stand between him and the carved Buddha’s head stolen from his remote village’s temple, wears its drive for world domination on its sleeve. Hence the impossible-to-ignore bit of graffiti that appears in the background during one of the film’s many 10-against-one mix-it-ups: “Hi Spielberg—Let’s do it together!”
A far cry from the auteurist aspirations of a pan-Asian sophisto-satire like Last Life in the Universe or the full-frontal picnic passions of a Blissfully Yours, director-producer Prachya Pinkaew’s intentions are in fact much more in keeping with most of what’s going on in Thai cinema today: Forget about fawning features in Cahiers du Cinéma or those silly statuettes from Cannes—the only sort of French attention Ong-Bak was eager to attract (and quickly attained) was an international distribution deal financed by Luc Besson. But never mind if many of the film’s action antics seem borrowed from ’80s-era Jackie Chan, or if its attitude toward women (both kinds: party whores punished with coke overdoses and sexless tomboys prone to melodramatic emo-meltdowns) borders on Cro-Magnon. The ferocious fighting moves (adapted from ancient Muay Thai manuals by veteran Thai martial arts director Phanna Rithikrai) that constitute Ong-Bak‘s money shots are often truly astonishing and help convince even conscientious complainers that the ringing sound the movie leaves in your head isn’t just that of cash being made.