Much as it pains me to say it now, Steven Seagal is probably the reason why I got into martial arts movies. Seeing his earlier movies (before he put on weight and started on his direct-to-DVD road to hell) made me want to go out and learn how to fight like that. Since that I've obviously found all of the other master martial artists like Jet Li and Jackie Chan, who continue to impress me today. Then there's Bruce Lee, probably the most distinguishable martial artist, who passed on some of his legacy to his similarly short-lived son Brandon. Now we have Tony Jaa, possibly the next great martial arts superstar.
Ting's village is protected by a sacred idol, Ong Bak, which keeps the village alive. So when it is stolen, it is up to him to recover it. He travels to the city to look for the idol and gets involved in an underground boxing ring, the boss of which also has a sideline in stealing idols. Ting fights his way to the truth, assisted on his journey of discovery by his reluctant cousin George, and friend May.
The truth is, however, nobody would watch this film for the story. It is a contrived, well-trodden plot that we have seen so many times before in some form or another. We've seen underground fighting tournaments (in everything from Fight Club to Jet Li's recent Unleashed), theft of priceless artefacts and solo warriors on a mission all before. The reason why this movie is so good is thanks to the martial arts action, pure and simple.
After a brief opening sequence setting the scene, Tony Jaa's Ting gets right down to some brutal fisticuffs, taking on about four fighters in the underground fighting tournaments, combating well over a dozen armed members of a street gang in a well-choreographed street chase and then fighting his way to the big boss and his steroid-pumped henchman. Jaa has moves that will make your jaw drop, solid, powerful strikes that can take down a man with a single blow. His elbow strikes are almost painful to watch and he even does a little bone-breaking to get the message across. Each and every manoeuvre is captured by repeat-shot Van Damme-style directing that let us see the takedowns from every conceivable angle.
His skills are undoubtedly amazing, simply awe-inspiring, but he also has a certain charisma and star appeal that makes him a clear front-runner for the title of the next best thing in martial arts action movies. Few stars have made such a brilliant debut, perhaps not in terms of story depth or quality, but certainly in terms of action. By the end of the movie I do not think that many fans of the original masters, like Bruce Lee, will be disappointed with the mastery that they have just witnessed.