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Originally published February 11, 2005 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 11, 2005 at 9:49 AM

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"Thai Warrior" is all physicality, no heart

He can leap like a lemur and bash steroid-gobbling mutants in the nose with his knee. He can escape a throng of wild-eyed gangsters by running...

Special to The Seattle Times

He can leap like a lemur and bash steroid-gobbling mutants in the nose with his knee. He can escape a throng of wild-eyed gangsters by running across their heads like stones in a creek. He can fling his long body through a narrow gap between two panes of glass.

He just can't make you care.

Tony Jaa, a martial-arts sensation and protégé of Thai action-movie hero Phanna Rithikrai ("Born to Fight"), could probably capture Olympic gold in acrobatics without breaking a sweat. But as a would-be next Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Jet Li, he's bland and humorless; soulful but nothing like a star.

Movie review

Showtimes and trailer 1.5 stars

"Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior," with Tony Jaa, Wannakit Siriput, Petchthai Wongkamlao. Directed by Prachya Pinkaew, from a screenplay by Suphachai Sithiamphan. Based on a story by Pinkaew and Phanna Rithikrai. 105 minutes. Rated R for violence, language, drug use, mild sexuality. In Thai with English subtitles. Several theaters.

Jaa's intended breakout vehicle, a grotesque and unimaginative fish-out-of-water story called "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior," is supposed to be a stylish, operatic fight flick. But despite a script pitting a country naif — who happens to be a master at Thai boxing — against big-city mobsters, drug dealers and antiquities thieves, the film's suspense elements are gratuitous and Jaa's screen time is largely about athletics, not building a character.

Jaa plays Ting, an orphan raised by a kindly monk in a rural Thai village. When a former native, Don (Wannakit Siriput), is rebuffed after attempting to buy the town's valuable Ong-Bak (statue of Buddha), he returns and steals its head.

Panicked villagers raise money to buy the head back. They send Ting to Bangkok, where he's supposed to connect with George (Petchthai Wongkamlao), son of the village chief but now a low-level hustler. Not happy to see Ting, George steals the money and gambles it away. Ting is forced to take on a succession of opponents in order to get the Ong-Bak back from the black market.

The fight choreography is impressive if eventually wearing, even nauseating. There's too much sadistic emphasis on the crushing of bodies.

Jaa's combat style, an ancient system called Muay Thai, is initially interesting to watch, and director Prachya Pinkaew worked closely with him to come up with novel fight scenarios and stunts.

But that alone can't save a pedestrian plot, boring characters and lack of a charismatic hero.

Tom Keogh:

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