Wire-fu is over. Ethereal, floaty-poetic martial arts with its billowing robes, dinky colour-coding and gravity-flouting frolics suddenly seems flabby and stagey. All very prog rock. Ong-Bak is the punk backlash and its star, Tony Jaa, is here to elbow a new brutality into an increasingly cosy genre.
From the moment he demonstrates his Muay Thai prowess in a solo display for the temple master, Jaa feels - and squeals - like the real deal. The flowing grace of Jet Li and slapstick athleticism of Jackie Chan, backed up with the peerless speed and technique of Bruce Lee.
Martial-arts movie fans will recognise the testosterone tingle that comes when charisma transcends choreography. Jaa is so magnetic, you hardly notice the daft plot with its hokey set-ups, armies of fist-fodder goons and Bondish mega-villain squawking commands through a synthetic voice-box (check out the tracheotomy-hole smoking scene).
Of all the recent martial-arts sensations, Jaa is certainly closest to Lee in type (tough but willowy, granite-carved but not obsessively buffed). Ong-Bak is a shameless showcase for his talents, and it works because it stays raw and simple, playing out like a breathless, videogame version of the Lee blueprint: seemingly gormless country boy washes up in the big city, is doubted, scorned, and pushed and pushed until... finally, if you really insist, he's forced to open up an industrial-strength barrel of kick-arse.
Apart from an intrusive sub-plot with the OD-ing sister of Ting's drug-runner buddy, the Western-friendly cut is bang-on. It's so rampantly geared for action, that the talky bits are more downtime than drag - a chance to take a breath before the next set-piece. And there's a lot more than Van Damme-style bloodlust here. You'll gape as Jaa is chased around rickety back-streets, scampering up walls, somersaulting over conveniently positioned obstacles, leaping over - and sliding under - cars... You'll splutter at the way materials are employed for comic effect (chairs, tables, fire, fridges, curry paste...).
Most of all, you'll ooh, aah and ouch at the breathtaking physical pyrotechnics. Punches crunch, elbows crack, knees clunk. Fights look and feel real because the blows are connecting (no CGI, crash-mats, stunt doubles and no friggin' wires). The party-piece moves are pornographically replayed in slo-mo from multiple angles.
That might sound cheesy, but there isn't a single one of them that you won't want to see again, just to confirm you really did see what you think you saw. And just in case you get a touch of fight fatigue, Pinkaew even chucks in a crowd-pleasing car-chase on a precipitous, unfinished stretch of road, involving far too many three-wheeled tuk-tuks.
Ong-Bak is rough, rickety and hardly a multi-layered masterpiece, but it gives birth to that rare breed of superstar who transcends type and demands to be seen by all. Tony Jaa is the man.
Brutal and brilliant. A long-awaited shake-awake for a genre becoming way too settled. Makes Crouching Tiger feel like a trip to the ballet.