It takes a reel or two for the creaky exposition to get out of the way, but the bone-crunching martial-arts saga Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior finally hits its stride by recognizing a cliché and exploiting it for all it's worth. Normally in cinema, any chase scene through narrow alleyways or urban bazaars involves obstacles—a fruit cart, two men carrying a plate of glass, or maybe a small ring of barbed wire hanging from a pole for some reason. In a sequence that recalls the best of Jackie Chan, fleet-footed Thai sensation Tony Jaa evades a throng of gangsters by springing through a crowded marketplace and sidestepping all these hoary pitfalls. In Ong-Bak, the only thing more exciting than watching Jaa fight is watching him flee, which he does with the combined skill of a dancer and a physical comedian.
Though martial-arts movies typically waste time overcomplicating the conflict—in Chan films, this often involves a government lackey reeling off a page-long monologue—Ong-Bak starts in a near-slumber. Before Jaa can demonstrate the ancient system of Muay Thai ("Nine Body Weapons") on some poor thug's skull, director Prachya Pinkaew dawdles in a rural Thai village, where a scoundrel has just stolen the head of a precious Buddha statue. After some consternation, the town elders agree to send Jaa, the most promising local warrior, to Bangkok to retrieve their lost treasure. For help, Jaa turns to his city cousin Perttary Wongkamlao, an unrepentant gambler and lovable lowlife who owes money all around town, including to a ruthless crime boss who happens to have the missing head. This sets off a wild trip through the underworld, where Jaa confronts innumerable waves of mob henchmen and unwillingly participates in a series of Bloodsport-style bare-knuckle brawls.
A refreshing return to inventive, earthbound choreography after the successes of ornate wire-fu imports like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou's Hero and House Of Flying Daggers, Ong-Bak makes up in action what it lacks in storytelling finesse. The ads are anxious to exalt Jaa as the next Chan or Jet Li, but he falls somewhere between the two in demeanor, putting Jet's stone-face to work in comedic situations that Chan would use as an occasion for clowning. Left to his own devices, Jaa seems more comfortable letting his knees and elbows do the talking, and his quick, compact fighting technique dazzles in every thrice-repeated multiple-angle shot. It's hard to tell whether the creative choreography comes from him or the director, but clearly his body can pull off just about anything.