All is peaceful in Ting's (Jaa) tiny Thai village. Until, that is, some nefarious no-gooders saw off the head of the Ong-Bak - the village's Buddha statue - and steal it away to sell to an evil businessman. It's up to martial-arts-master country boy Ting to save the day.
Martial arts fighting hurts. Stating the bleeding obvious? Well, yes, but most actors could be forgiven for forgetting this, what with their action caperings becoming so dependent on vogueish, CG-assisted wirework. It looks amazing but it just isn't real. And while there's nothing inherently wrong with that, it's good to see someone like Ong-Bak star/fight choreographer Tony Jaa spurning the cables, the VFX, the stunt doubles, even, and hurling himself into some astonishingly savage melees.
In terms of story, script and shooting style, it's undoubtedly B-grade. Attempts at inserting darker drama are ineptly handled, the lead girl character shrieks unbearably and we're lumbered with a standard-issue tubby comedy sidekick. Yet, when the fists are flying it's a balls-out joyride, boasting a level of pugilistic realism rarely seen on our big screens.
It's worth noting that this isn't, strictly speaking, a kung fu movie. The martial art practised here is Muay Thai, a style of kickboxing which we've not seen much on British screens due to the BBFC's previous dislike of crunching elbow- and knee-blows. Furthermore, the actors/stuntmen aren't afraid to be hit for real. In Ong-Bak, blows - often rendered in slo-mo and repeated from different angles - really connect.
This might all sound rather sad and boys-only, but it isn't. Between them, Jaa and director Prachya Pinkaew ensure every action scene thrums with applause-conjuring innovation. One chase comedically throws every cliched obstacle Jaa's way - but not without some twists. Take the classic 'two men with pane of glass' schtick. Here, it's a sheet of double-glazing, with Jaa nimbly diving between the two panes, rather than smashing through just the one. Elsewhere we see Jaa (not a double, mind) leap through a ring of barbed wire, slide under a moving truck and deliver a flying knee-kick to someone's head while his leg is on fire. This guy's so full-on, he makes Jackie Chan look about as acrobatic as Charlie Chan.
Without doubt, Jaa's a star - a man very possibly worthy of the 'new Bruce Lee' tag. It's likely he'll go on to bigger, more American-flavoured things, and tone his act down in the process. Our advice? Catch him while he's fresh.
Despite its clumsiness with anything that isn't action, this wildly inventive, brutally entertaining martial arts classic-to-be is thoroughly deserving of crossover success.