"The slender story line of good vs. evil is an excuse for many terrific fight scenes." starring the main character's martial abilities. Its onrush of chase scenes, hand-to-hand combat and acrobatics, sometimes shown multiple times from different angles, drew notice for its quality, inventive moves and lack of CGI and wire-fu.
The scene opens in Ban Nong Pradu, a peaceful rural village in northeastern Thailand. A group of villagers, covered in white mud, are standing by an immense Bodhi tree, looking up to the top where a flag flaps in the gentle breeze. With a great yell, they all run toward the tree and begin to climb, knocking others away. Men fall to the ground with a thud, bouncing off branches as they go. One climber comes out on top. It is Ting, the village's best athlete and fighter. He grabs the flag, ties it around his neck and descends, deftly avoiding the other climbers.
Ting is established as a reverent, respectful young man, and is anointed as such by the village's monk, in a ceremony at the community's humble little temple that night. Though extremely skilled in muay Thai, as he demonstrates for his "Uncle Mao" (indeed, it is literally "Uncle Drunk" in Thai), he has made a vow that he will not use it to harm another person for any personal monetary gain.
It is a poor village. All it has is an ancient Buddha image, named Ong-Bak. During the night, Ting's drunken Uncle Mao stumbles into the temple to discover something bad going on. He awakes the next morning to find the Buddha statue's head missing. The villagers all despair of the bad luck that will befall them if the Buddha's head is not returned. Ting speaks up and says he will recover it at all costs.
The villagers all chip in, giving up treasured baht and hoarded trinkets to pay for Ting's way to Bangkok, where he is to meet his ne'er-do-well cousin Humlae and get help in tracking down the men who stole Ong-Bak's head.
In the city, we find that Humlae has dyed his hair blond and renamed himself George, since his village name, "Humlae", also means "Dirty Balls". He and his friend, Muay Lek, are street-bike racing hustlers who have fallen in with a bad crowd of yaba dealers.
Humlae is at first reluctant to help Ting, but when he sees the small fortune in coins that Ting has collected from his village, Humlae takes an immediate interest. And, when Ting is in the bathroom, Humlae grabs the sack and heads for a bar on Khaosan Road where an illegal boxing match is going on. Ting tracks Humlae down, but instead of getting his money back, he ends up fighting and being named the new champion after one high knee smash waylays the old champ.
This makes Ting an enemy of Komtuan, a gray-haired, wheelchair-bound crimelord who needs an electrolarynx to speak. He's been watching the fight from his private room, and losing money because Ting keeps beating his fighters. It is discovered that Ong-Bak was actually stolen by one of his henchmen, Don.
Meanwhile, back in Ting's village, there is bad luck indeed. The ground is dusty and full of cracks and all that's left in the village well is muddy water. They need the Buddha's head back for the drought to end and good luck to return to the village.
George keeps working shady deals, with he and Muay Lek working a scam at a baccarat game in an illegal casino. Eventually, the scams catch up with him, and the drug dealer shows up to give George a beating. Ting ignores George's cries for help, but when the drug dealer starts smacking Muay Lek around, Ting takes care of things. But then the drug dealer's friends and the cheated casino boss show up and a footchase through the alleys ensues, with Ting showing off his acrobatic skill as he walks over crowds, jumps through a barbed-wire hoop, leaps over a rack of sharp tools, cartwheels through a narrow space between two panes of glass, doing a gymnastics move over a wok of hot oil, and jumping up and down scaffoldings. Meanwhile, George is being chased by several gangsters as well. After encountering a hot chili powder stand, he takes a handful of it, and sticks right into the gangsters' eyes. He then runs into a dead end where Ting helps him escape in exchange for George's assistance in helping Ting find Don.
That night, there is another fight at the bar. Ting is egged on by Big Bear, a vulgar Australian fighter. At first, Big Bear attempts to provoke a fight with Ting by insulting Thai people. But after Big Bear beats another Thai man and assaults a waitress, Ting takes up the fight and easily beats the hulking man. He then must fight Toshiro, a very fast and flexible Japanese fighter. His final opponent Mad Dog, another farang, who favors the use of such objects as chairs, tables, electrical wires and even a refrigerator to punch and smash his opponents with. The fight takes them up to Komtuan's private booth. Komtuan hands Mad Dog a knife, but Ting simply kicks Mad Dog out of the viewing booth's glass right back onto the battle area. An African man steps into the ring to throw a coin at Ting's feet and at the same time, he gives Ting a thumbs up. This starts loud cheering from everyone who's just seen the fight go on. And everyone from everywhere throws coins at Ting, much to the delight of George and Muay Lek.
Muay Lek, meanwhile, has been struggling to keep her older sister Ngek from using drugs. Ngek has fallen in with a small time crook named Don. On the bed, Ngek, following her sister's advice, says she wants to quit drugs, Don, in his anger violently suffocates her and stuffs her mouth with drugs. Muay Lek shows up at Don's apartment with George and Ting to find her struggling sister overdosed and near death. George and Ting take off and chase the boyfriend in tuk-tuks, with several of Don's men joining in. The tuk-tuks take to an elevated expressway, and the scene climaxes with many tuk-tuks driving off the edge of an unfinished portion of the highway.
Ting follows the bad guys and ends up at the port and in the Chao Phraya River, where he discovers a cache of stolen Buddha images. This leads back to the gangster Komtuan, who makes Ting fight one of his bodyguards who is a Burmese boxer and has been treating himself with drugs, making him full of rage and impervious to pain. Ting painfully loses the fight to meet Komtuan's demand for him to throw the fight in exchange for Ong-Bak's head. The following day, George, Ting and Muay Lek are kidnapped by Komtuan's henchmen. After Komtuan leaves and orders the henchmen to kill the 3, Ting attacks the man with the assistance of George. As one of the gangsters mounts his motorcycle, we see Ting come out of nowhere with fire on his legs, his knees colliding with the gangster's helmet.
Ting and George follow the gangster into a cave in a mountain, where the head of a giant Buddha image is being chiseled away. There is a final showdown, with Ting fighting off all of Komtuan's henchmen with George, who tries his hardest to fight them, but is still beaten badly. Komtuan's bodyguard injects himself with several shots of drugs at one time and attacks Ting. The bodyguard is defeated and seemingly killed by Ting. Komtuan then shoots Ting and attempts to crush Ong-Bak's head with a sledgehammer. George covers Ong-Bak's head with his body, taking the beatings from the sledgehammer to save Ong-Bak's head. At that moment, the giant Buddha head falls over, crushing Komtuan to death while George almost rolls away from its path, but he is unfortunately crushed underneath. Although crushed from the head, Ting and Muay hear his last wish, for Muay Lek to graduate school and for Ting to look after her.
The head of the Ong-Bak Buddha statue is restored in the temple of Ting's village. Ting, now ordained as a monk with shaven head and white robes, arrives into the village in a procession on an elephant's back while the villagers and Muay Lek celebrate his ordination.
The film introduced international audiences to a traditional form of muay Thai (or Muay Boran, an ancient muay Thai style), a kickboxing style that is known for violent strikes with fist, feet, shins, elbows and knees. The fights were choreographed by Panna Rittikrai, who is also Tony Jaa's mentor and a veteran director of B-movie action films.
Jaa was trained in Muay Thai since childhood, he wanted to bring Muay Thai to mainstream so he decided to make this movie. Jaa and Panna struggled to raise money to produce a demo reel to drum up interest for the making the film. Their first reel was made on expired film stock, so they had to raise more money and start over.
Most of the subplot involving Muay Lek's sister, Ngek, was removed, and the final showdown between Ting and Komtuan's bodyguard was shortened. The French company also rescored the soundtrack with some hip-hop sounds, replacing the Thai rock score, and it's this version that has been made available in the United States and most of the Western world.
For the United Kingdom release, the soundtrack was scored yet again, this time with an orchestral score, but the film was left uncut with the subplot of Ngek.
The Hong Kong cut of the film's theatrical release omits a "bone breaking" sequence toward the end, where George's arm is snapped and Ting in turn snaps the leg of a bad guy. DVD releases in Hong Kong have the scene restored.
An "alternate ending" offered on the Thai, Australian, and UK DVD releases has George surviving. He is seen at the end bandaged up, limping, with his arm broken, supported by his parents. Prachya Pinkaew stated in an interview that although there was debate, they ultimately decided it would be appropriate for him to make a meaningful sacrifice for the village.
For a time, the only legal home-video version of Ong-Bak with English subtitles was a Hong Kong VCD, but the translations were generally pretty poor.
With the UK and US DVD releases, Ong Bak became officially available with English subtitles, but those are versions that have been re-edited. There's an Australian-issued DVD that's a two-disc package featuring both the original Thai cut and Luc Besson's version.