Nong Pra-du village, northern Thailand. Once every 24 years the festival of Ong-Bak comes around, but this year the Buddha statue known as Ong-Bak is missing its head; an errant former son of the village has severed it as a sacrifice to his crime boss in Bangkok. This is bad news for the villagers, who face drought without their godhead’s head. Orphan martial-arts prodigy Ting (Tony Jaa) is sent to retrieve his fellow stone-face from the big bad city. Excelling in the ancient body-busting art of Muay Thai (or ‘Nine Body Weapons’), he has made a solemn vow to his monk master never to put his skills to use. Thankfully for the film’s commercial prospects, Bangkok is not a city that encourages such abstinence, and Ting soon sets his tutor’s advice aside for further consideration at a quieter time.
Pitched as Bruce Lee’s latest heir-apparent, Jaa works an authentic no-wires fight schtick, with a preponderance of elbows and knees; the director has a particular admiration for a falling elbow-to-head manoeuvre, which we’re repeatedly invited to admire from multiple angles. Jaa is a deadpan performer in other respects, but the film throws in various OTT opponents – I liked the bar fighter who made full use of the furniture, electrical wires and spectators – and semi-slapstick chase sequences. Womanhood gets raw treatment, but the mob lord who speaks and smokes through his tracheotomy pipe is a splendid update on the trad movie villain. Not the most ecumenical of picture-postcards – ‘Thais are Thai because of Thai boxing,’ proposes the closing-credits ditty – the film is scrappy fun.