Earlier this year, Magnolia Home Entertainment released 'Ong Bak 2: The Beginning' on Blu-ray, starring and co-directed by martial arts virtuoso Panom Yeerum -- better known as Tony Jaa. 20th Century Fox also saw this as the ideal opportunity to bring the film that made Jaa an international superstar to the format on the same date, 'Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior.' A clever marketing ploy for sure, though as one would expect, the hasty release didn't exactly do this Blu-ray presentation any favors.
The movie begins in a peaceful northeastern Thailand village, where the community is preparing for a momentous celebration honoring Ong-Bak -- the sacred Buddha statue that blesses the area with good fortune. A few days before the festivities, however, one of the elders discovers that the head of their beloved guardian is missing. The heartbroken villagers deduce that a ruffian named Don (Wannakit Sirioput) has stolen the artifact and fled to the city. The only person brave enough to fill the shoes as head detective is Ting (Jaa) -- a young monk highly skilled in the martial art of Muay Thai who has taken a vow to never use his training for personal gain.
When Ting arrives in Bangkok on his quest to hunt down the noggin-napper, he meets up with his bleach-haired cousin Humlae (Petchtai Wongkamlao), now going by the name George (apparently since "Humlae" is Thai for "Dirty Balls") and is supposedly the man who can track down Don's whereabouts. George has his own problems at the moment, though, after he and his female partner Muay (Pumwaree Yodkamol) are caught scamming lowlifes out of their money. A desperate George even tries to swindle his cousin out of his cash, causing a ticked off Ting to inadvertently wander right into an underground fight club. This is where Ting is forced to use his skills in self-defense, in what could only be described as a brilliant display of badassery. The move makes an enemy out of Komtuan (Suchao Pongwilai) -- a powerful mob kingpin who loses a hefty sum betting against Ting. But Ting still fully intends to complete his mission peacefully -- and if that doesn't work he'll just open a super-sized can of Muay Thai whoopass on anyone standing in his way.
'Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior' is Thai director Prachya Pinkaew's test run of sorts at reinventing the classic action film. After viewing a demo Tony Jaa put together with his mentor Panna Rittikrai (who would co-choreograph 'Ong-Bak' with Jaa), Pinkaew instantly knew he had to produce a film showcasing Jaa's amazing talent. But he also realized that the young martial artist and stuntman wasn't exactly a thespian, either, so his solution was to shift the focus almost entirely on pure raw action. The result is a balls-to-the-wall thrill ride where the "plot" merely serves as a guide rail for some of the most insane action sequences ever assembled on screen. Pinkaew and Jaa would later refine this formula for their 'Ong-Bak' do-over 'Tom yum goong' (more familiar in North America as 'The Protector') -- a film best remembered for its particularly wicked one-man rampage in the name of love for pachyderms everywhere.
The movie does takes awhile to get going to be honest, as there's really just one big stunt in the village involving a massive melee free-for-all in a giant tree, but once Jaa hits the streets and enters kick-ass mode he begins busting nearly every head that doesn't belong to his beloved Ong-Bak (even George gets a taste of Ting's wrath). Besides demonstrating his Muay Thai Mojo, Jaa leaps, punches, tumbles, kicks, somersaults, punches, flips, kicks, and spins -- kind of like Dastan in 'The Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,' only a bazillion times more graceful (not to mention brutal). It's no wonder Jaa's character is named "Ting" -- that's the sound he makes as he pinballs all over Bangkok.
There's no doubting 'Ong Bak' is Jaa's Wild
West East Stunt Show all the way, but Pinkaew also fills in some of the gaps with a unique blend of comedy. There are bits of random humor like Komtuan always speaking in monotone due to an electronic voice box and a high speed chase with a fleet of cute little motorized rickshaw taxis, but most of the comic relief comes from Wongkamlao--who is one of Thailand's most famous comedians. Just watching him try to keep up with Jaa and fail miserably (especially during the gauntlet-type sequence through the city's streets) is absolutely priceless.
Of course, 'Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior' still isn't a film for everyone, and the humor is an acquired taste. Those looking for a solid story with quality performances will have to look elsewhere. But if you're in the mood to witness one of the planet's super-human marvels in action (all without the aid of wires, CGI, or stunt doubles) then be sure to check out Tony Jaa's 'Ong Bak' -- the guy is amazing.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Fox brings 'Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior' to high-definition on a BD-25 Blu-ray disc inside a standard blue keepcase. The disc boots up directly to the menu without any forced advertising. The Blu-ray is also reported to be region-locked and therefore will only be playable in Region A compatible machines.
I always hate to be the bearer of bad news, but this 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 (1.85:1 aspect ratio) encode is downright ugly -- with a capital "F." So Fugly in fact, that 'Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior' resembles mediocre standard-definition fare from beginning to end, and even saying that much is probably being kind.
What's more embarrassing, not to mention quite comical, is that someone at Fox decided to tack on a Criterion-esque text blurb as part of the bonus features with tidbits on the mastering process, as if it were something to be proud of:
"This new, digital transfer of 'Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior' was created at Deluxe Postproduction Toronto from an original 35mm internegative of the film. Color correction, image stabilization, and digital cleaning were facilitated at Deluxe to restore the film and present it in high-definition."
Well, Criterion this ain't. What we get is an excessively soft presentation, and to make matters worse the image is muddy, grainy, and cloudy, which obviously hinders the clarity of the picture. There is no depth, as even well-lit daylight scenes remain flat and lifeless. Colors are never striking and there's frequent bleeding as well. Blacks can sometimes be deep, other times they are grayish, and occasionally they have a splash of glowing navy highlights (one example occurs right off the bat during the opening scene with the sacred tree ritual). Fine detailing and delineation are exceptionally weak, and close-ups of facial features are hardly revealing either. Skin tones sporadically fluctuate through a variety of different hues, like the characters were a race of chameleon-like beings from another planet. And artifacts? Call pest control -- they're everywhere.
Even if the original print is in rough shape and takes most of the blame, this release just doesn't come anywhere close to high-definition, and honestly, looks more like a cheap bootleg from Thailand.
The disc includes lossless English and Thai DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks, as well as optional English and Spanish subtitles. While I wouldn't say the sound design is as terrible as the video, it doesn't exactly impress me all that much, either.
I went with the default Thai with English subtitles option, though after a few spot checks I'd say both mixes are about the same in quality. Dialogue sounds fine, if a bit flat and bland. Some lines occasionally struggle to crawl out from under other sounds in the mix, but at least the subtitles help with that and there aren't a whole lot of speaking parts anyway. Surround usage is pretty weak, with only a few noticeable bursts of crowd ambience during the fight club sequences, and mild score bleed to the rears. The hard-driving music packs a decent wallop of bass activity, but the explosions are light and disappointing. Pans and directionality are quite limited as well. The short of it is these tracks are passable enough to get by, and that's about it.
If I'm not mistaken, it looks like all of the supplements have been ported over from the DVD release.
There's only one reason and one reason alone to watch 'Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior' -- and his name is Tony Jaa. The Cambodian born martial arts prodigy is an acrobatic phenom, defying the laws of science with his Jaa-dropping athleticism.
Sadly, this Blu-ray ranks as a major letdown to say the least. While all the supplements carry over from the DVD, unfortunately, so does the technical presentation -- with middling audio and a video quality that is a far cry from high-definition. That said, fans may still want to own this title once the price drops a bit more, but if you already own the DVD there really isn't much incentive to upgrade.