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Movie review: 'Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior'


3½ stars (out of 4)

Meet the new Jackie Chan: Tony Jaa, star of Thailand's martial arts epic "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior."

Jaa combines Chan's early-career daredevil feats with Jet Li's calm ferocity, generating a powerful cinematic experience reminiscent of Chan's "Drunken Master II" and Li's "The Legend" movies. Gone are the gravity-defying effects of "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" and "Hero"; "Ong-Bak" carves out its place in cinema history with sweat and bruises. Under spare, golden lights, Jaa crushes his opponents with Muay Thai, a close-quarters boxing style that's all knees and elbows, as majestic as it is devastating.

In "Ong-Bak," a rudimentary town-and-country story takes Ting (Jaa) from his tiny village to big-city Bangkok on a quest to recover the stolen head of an ancient Buddha statue. As in many Asian action films, the preoccupation with honor, loyalty and family ties tips over into melodrama. "Ong-Bak" embraces this tradition, though it streamlines the thematic propulsion for optimal fight time.

Ting's Bangkok contact, George (Petchthai Wongkamlao), has been corrupted by a life of gambling, cheating and stealing, disavowing his village and its traditional customs. Caught in the middle, Ting is the innocent-hearted stranger in a strange land who must rely on George's underworld contacts to find the sacred artifact. Thankfully, bumbling George is crooked and inept enough to steer Ting into the hands of bloodthirsty villain Khom Tuan (Sukhaaw Phongwilai), a wheelchair-bound gangland boss who barks orders via an electronic voice box and smokes through a hole in his throat.

Through a convoluted series of events, Tuan has gained control of the head. He also happens to run a fighting syndicate, offering Ting plenty of opportunities to slap down his biggest, scariest opponents with vulnerability and style (watch for his career-making, "Mortal Kombat"-evoking fight against three opponents—one that nearly destroys Tuan's club).

Director Prachya Pinkaew sculpts simply framed, kinetic whole-body battles between and among his principals, relying on John Woo-like slow motion and NFL-inspired replays to emphasize his action, so we can watch Jaa leap under and over cars, through rings of barbed wire and more from different angles. His infusion of comedy elements keeps the story light, without dragging it into the cartoonish.

A new soundtrack, thanks to rights-owner Luc Besson ("La Femme Nikita," "The Professional"), enlivens the whole enterprise, adding a Western edge with modern techno and hip-hop beats.

Already a much-bootlegged, beloved martial arts film in Thailand, "Ong-Bak" delivers a new world action star in Jaa. He isn't the comedian Chan is, and hasn't been on screen long enough to develop Bruce Lee's magnetic machismo. But give him time. Pinkaew tailor-made this film to showcase the former stuntman's jaw-dropping skills (Jaa doubled for Robin Shou in the movie version of "Mortal Kombat") and there's even talk of another Jaa/Pinkaew collaboration.

It can't get here fast enough.

"Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior"

Directed by Prachya Pinkaew; screenplay by Suphachai Sithiamphan; photographed by Natawut Kittikun; production design by Akhadaet Kaewchote; score by Atomix Clubbing; edited by Thanat Sunsin; stunts choreographed by Phanna Rithikrai; executive produced by Somsak Techaratanaprasert. In Thai, with English subtitles. A Magnolia Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:45. MPAA rating R (for sequences of strong violence, language, some drug use and sexuality).

Ting - Tony Jaa
George - Petchthai Wongkamalao
Muay Lek - Pumwaree Yodkamol
Ngek - Rungrawee Borrijindakul
Peng - Chetwut Wacharakun
Khom TuanSukhaaw Phongwilai

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