The most exciting Asian success of recent times is, surprisingly, of Thai origin not the film as such (it's a pottering drivel of a story line) but rather the movie's star, Panom Yeerum, or 'Tony Ja' to us Westerners. Perhaps one of the most remarkable finds in the evolution of martial arts cinema, Ja resembles a spirited Jackie Chan in his stunt work, only with enough ferocity to make Steven Seagal look like a prancing mary. Ong-Bak is all about full contact Muay Thai kickboxing, and Tony Ja is so remarkable to watch, he will quite literally leave you breathless: a chase scene through Thailand's market streets has the boy scaling walls in a single leap, glide underneath moving trucks while in the splits, and somersault his way through bustling traffic with split-second execution. You think that's something, wait until he starts beating people up, with enough force to bring down a Jumbo Jet his knees and elbows can split through cycle helmets, he performs wildly acrobatic kicks that defy gravity, even when his legs are on fire! The final brawl sees a succession of stuntmen line up as canon fodder for his exhilarating skills, which emphasises the movie's selling point to such a degree that it literally beats any kind of wistful cynicism clean out of your brain. The movie's secret, and Tony Ja's, is the impressive lack of wire gimmickry, stunt doubles or computer generated nonsense, a rare thing in this new age of the instant kung fu hero. Ong-Bak reverses the genre back to its bare essentials and emphatically embraces talent over trickery. What Ja also makes us neglect is a pitiful story line, another herald to the golden age, where he travels into the dark, gambling infested underworld of Thailand to recover the stolen head of his village's sacred Buddhist statue, but in a movie this explicitly crowd pleasing trivial issues like plot and characterisation are by the by. This movie kicks ass and should come with a packet of plasters as for Tong Ja, with a debut this strong, it will remain to be seen how long he can resist the call from Planet Weinstein.
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