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Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior

Thai Import Serves Up Sizzling Action

When Ting's tiny village is rocked by the theft of a sacred Buddha statue known as Ong Bak, the young warrior-in-training volunteers to rescue it from the clutches of a bumbling drug pusher and his menacing boss, Khom Tuan. Naturally, this requires a trek from the Nong Pra-du temple in rural Thailand to the mean streets of Bangkok, where Ting must battle a group of underground street fighters and bloodthirsty henchmen before teaming up with a long-lost friend, the prodigal Humlae, to retrieve his hometown's most prized possession.

Granted, this is pretty standard stuff, a familiar story that's more or less borrowed from countless Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies. Will Ong-Bak vault up-and-coming Thai action star Panom Yeerum (playing Ting under the pseudonym Tony Jaa) to the pantheon inhabited by those screen giants? Probably not. While martial arts aficionados will appreciate Jaa's acrobatic stunts and unique, even elegant brand of freestyle kickboxing, he's not quite ready for prime time. Ong-Bak is a promising debut -- though American audiences will undoubtedly overlook it due to the subtitled feature's limited theatrical run -- but Jaa will need to combine his mastery of Thai martial arts with some genuine acting chops before he makes his breakthrough. He lacks Chan's goofy charm, and while his grave demeanor is reminiscent of Lee's, he will need to develop his own style.

Yet Ong-Bak is more concerned with rapid-fire action than acting. As a slugfest, it succeeds without a shred of computer graphics or digital trickery. It's refreshingly old-school, capturing every roundhouse kick and bone-shattering punch in real time, and without the aid of stunt doubles -- particularly impressive during a sequence in which Jaa fends off a crew of gangsters as flames tear through his pants. Indeed, director Prachya Pinkaew has taken great pains to render the ingeniously choreographed brutality in as authentic a manner as possible, and his efforts pay off. This Thai Warrior may not be the most eloquent, but he sure can fight.

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5