Thursday, June 10, 2004

Ong-Bak kicks into high gear

Here's a nice feature about Ong-Bak from Hollywood Reporter:

'But what I really liked is Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior,' a New York indie executive guiltily exclaimed at an upscale private dinner for another film at the Toronto International Film Festival last fall.

As the wine flowed, lips began to loosen about what films were making an impact North of the Border.

But the honcho's eyes -- which lit up while recounting the blow-by-blow, kick-ass antics of Warrior star Tony Jaa in the Midnight Madness movie -- then looked away, across a dining room of rarefied guests.

'I guess we all have different tastes,' he added, lamenting that his arty staff lacked any of his blood lust for the film.

Warrior, directed by Prachya Pinkaew, follows a statue in a temple in rural Thailand that locals believe is imbued with magical powers. When it is stolen, Jaa heads to Bangkok's underground fight clubs to win it back.

Last week, New York-based Magnolia Pictures kicked up a deal to acquire Warrior, with plans for a wide release in November.

But much like the statue Ong-Bak of the film's full title, the movie itself has taken a journey of twists and turns to US screens, with a bevy of distributors duking it out to bring Jaa to American audiences.

At last September's Toronto fest, even diehards felt the movie -- though a major buzz title -- needed serious cuts.

Luc Besson agreed. The French helmer's production company [EuropaCorp] snapped up Warrior in a multiterritory deal just before the film debuted at Toronto, and Besson pulled the picture off the table, recut it and added new music for a French rollout, which has so far brought in about 1 million admissions.

"When I saw the film, I sat there slack-jawed," says Eamonn Bowles, the head of Magnolia Pictures. "I could not believe what [Jaa] was doing."

Warrior is special effects-free fare, unlike, say, Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which ushered in an era of graceful, high-wire kung fu that has swiftly crept into such mainstream Hollywood blockbusters as the Matrix and Charlie's Angels franchises.

Magnolia lobbied for four months to buy the movie, ultimately beating the competition, including a major studio, by taking an alternate view of its US release.

"A lot of people were primarily talking about video as the [film's] main thrust," says Bowles, who plans on using Magnolia principal Mark Cuban's connections, including his NBA ties, to promote the film. "But we see the communal energy of the screenings as really making it soar theatrically."

Warrior also represents Magnolia moving into bigger pictures. 'We are always going to be an opportunity-based company,' Bowles says. 'This opportunity came with a higher price tag. But it is still a very prudent investment. We did not go out on a limb with this film.'

Jaa is almost certain to be a smash with action dorks, who have been flooding chatrooms with sophomoric superlatives for Warrior. ('This was one of the best film experiences of my life,' says an Ain't It Cool News blogger. 'We are talking religious here. That movie turned an entire audience into screaming primates.')

Jaa is already grabbing more mainstream fans by the throat, including helmer Brett Ratner and action icon Jet Li. Now if Warrior can only cross over and get that upscale dinner crowd going ape.

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