ONG-BAK: THE THAI WARRIOR (Prachya Pinkaew). 105 minutes. Subtitled. Opens Friday (February 11). For venues and times, see page 107. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
In the posters for Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, soon-to-be-superstar Tony Jaa looks out at us, smiling mischievously.
He projects more personality in this glossy image than he displays in an entire 105-minute movie, but who cares? Jaa can take acting lessons after some Hollywood producer snaps him up and tries to market yet another Asian action hero to an American audience.
Here, he plays Ting, a simple orphan raised in a Thai village by a kindly old monk who's also taught him the ancient -- and potentially deadly -- art of Muay Thai. When a Bangkok hoodlum desecrates the temple by running off with the Buddha's head, Ting tracks him down in the big, bad city.
Once there, his mission to get head (the Buddha's, that is) is initially thwarted as he enters the city's underworld of fight clubs, gambling and drugs.
But a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, and before long Ting is strapping ropes on his lean, muscled forearms, staring down his nasty-looking opponents and defying the laws of gravity and physiology.
Jaa's moves -- there are no wires or CGI -- are the highlight of the film. He's graceful but powerful. In an early chase scene, leaping over food carts and luging under trucks, he contorts his body in ways that don't seem possible.
Too bad he can't jump as easily through the script's holes. Why was the Buddha head stolen? How can a simple village kid drive like a NASCAR vet?
Director Prachya Pinkaew doesn't get in the way of the action, and he even offers up some humour, as when Ting's sidekick douses the villains with hot spices from a vendor's cart.
But there are too many muddy, darkly lit interior scenes. And when Jaa isn't moving, he recedes into the background, a plain, squeaky-voiced guy -- not yet the poster boy for 21st-century martial arts he'll soon become.