When discussing action movies – or simply action sequences in otherwise conventional comedies and dramas – it does well to avoid the latest powerful cliché.
This is the sentiment that opposes unreal or patently artificial special effects – especially those associated with digital processes – to supposedly authentic special effects based mainly on stunt work performed in real space and time.
Much nonsense is spoken on this matter. It is claimed, for instance, that the scene of a plane devastating houses in The Aviator (2004) – making extensive use of miniature sets, carefully faked point-of-view shots and discreet digital work – is inherently superior to all the digital animation in a film such as Constantine (2005).
George Miller gave the last word on this subject about two decades previously. Pointing out that, for his Mad Max 2 (1981), no real car chase was ever staged, he concluded that all special effects in cinema are artificial, a process of sticking “little bits of film together” – all of them faked in one way or another – to create an illusion.
The spirited action-comedy Ong Bak comes to us from Thailand with a proud publicity boast: “No computer graphics. No stunt doubles. No strings attached”! Showcasing the techniques of Muay Thai fighting, the novelty element of the project is indeed its old-fashioned, B movie-style reliance on “what you see is what you get” stunt work – in fact, whatever you see, you usually get three times, since director Prachya Pinkaew loves to show off the best bits three times in rapid succession.
Although it may not have been made with such an intention in mind, Ong Bak is being sold to Western audiences as a nostalgic, somehow innocent entertainment. It is the simple tale of a reluctant hero, Ting (Tony Jaa, who went on to direct two Ong Bak sequels in 2008 and 2010), fighting to recover the head of a Buddha statue stolen from his rural village, and forging unlikely alliances with bumbling George (Petchthai Wongkamlao) giggling young Muay Lek (Pumwaree Yodkamol).
It is easy and tempting to overrate Ong Bak. The charm of many sequences certainly recalls the most childlike Hong Kong productions of the prior three decades. But the plot and characters are quickly forgotten, while all that remains are the often impressive stunts, plus the charisma of rising star Jaa.
Just try to erase from your mind all that hype about real, unadorned cinema before you enter the theatre or slip the DVD into your player.
© Adrian Martin March 2005