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Ong-Bak: the Thai Warrior

Is Tony Jaa the next Bruce Lee? I doubt it, but I sure didn't mind watching his audition tape. In Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, Jaa displays a Fred Astaire-like grace while performing the ancient Siamese boxing discipline of Muay Thai. And like Astaire, he does it without wires or CGI ' so we're told, anyway. Muay Thai delivers a lot of its blows with the elbows and knees rather than the fists and feet, and although Elbows of Fury doesn't have quite the ring that Fists of Fury does, Jaa makes the case for this rather unorthodox martial-art form. His reflexes are as quick and deadly as lightning, and his leaps, featuring NBA-worthy hang-time, are a sight to behold. Though without Bruce Lee's crazed intensity or Jackie Chan's flair for comedy, the guy's got game.

What he doesn't have is much of a movie with which to showcase his talents. Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior certainly opens with a bang: As part of a village festival, a group of young men scramble like monkeys up a tree, pushing one another off the branches in an attempt to be the one to retrieve the flag at the top. The winner is Ting (Jaa), an aspiring monk who knows Muay Thai but has been told by his teacher not to use it ' too dangerous. Still, when a sacred Buddha's head is stolen from the village by a lowlife from Bangkok, it's Ting who's sent to retrieve it. And this leads to a series of encounters involving his elbows and knees a lot more than, say, his vocal cords, despite his pledge to his teacher. Ting is a man of few words, most of them having to do with getting that Buddha's head back.

So much for characterization. But Jaa makes up for it with his sheer athletic ability. There's a chase scene that seems right out of one of our own silent comedies where he races through the streets of Bangkok, narrowly missing various objects placed in his path, including the inevitable panes of glass being transported by workmen. And there are the fights, which feature a United Nations of brutes, including an American who looks like Howard Stern on steroids. Early on, the fights are over almost before they've begun, the opponents barely laying a glove on Ting. But there's always another brute where the last one came from. Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior won't elevate Jaa to Hollywood's A List, but with Jackie Chan eligible for his AARP card and Jet Li not exactly a spring chicken, he at least appears to have a lot of fight left in him.

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