I’m something of a dork for action movies. Not so much the traditional chop-socky type of film in which traditional kung-fu is important, people wear gis or kung-fu outfits, and philosophy is as important as face-breaking skills. I do appreciate those movies, but give me someone who swears revenge on a crime family or someone who takes his fighting to the streets and incorporates occasional gun-usage in between smashing spleens with his feet and crushing windpipes with his bare hands. I love traditional martial arts films, but I grew up with guys like Don The Dragon Wilson, Sasha Mitchell, Chuck Norris, and of course, Mark Dacascos.
That’s why I love Tony Jaa.
Initially, I wanted to do a Den of Geek Loves… on everyone’s favorite non-Star Wars Thai fighter (get it? Tie Fighter?! Punderful!). Unfortunately, he’s only done two movies that anyone outside of Thailand has seen, Ong-bak and Tom yum goong, AKA The Protector, Warrior King, or Honour of the Dragon (all awesome titles regardless of region). That’s not nearly the record of our previous honorees, so it’ll have to wait until he makes a few more martial arts epics, but I can safely say that if he keeps up this level of quality and increases the rate he makes movies, he’ll definitely be worthy of the honor before too long.
Tony Jaa burst onto the scene as an unknown. He’d done mostly stunt work in the past (including stunts for the feature film version of Mortal Kombat), and remained an unknown property in the West, and even most of Asia. I hadn’t heard of the film, I hadn’t heard about the film, and I sure as hell didn’t know who Tony Jaa was until a friend of mine badgered me, repeatedly and often, to check out the YouTube trailer for Ong-bak. It hadn’t shown in my area, or if it had it was long since gone, but I caught it on one of our many cable movie channels and instantly was smitten.
Here was a guy who was as brutal as young Steven Seagal, who did his own stunts like Jackie Chan, and had an action star look and presence the likes of which I hadn’t seen before. He was and is, quite honestly, the best action movie star of his generation. Here was a guy who could pick up the mantle of Eastern action star and Western action star (assuming he can learn English, of course). His moves were stunning, and he blended brutal direct striking with amazing acrobatics, finding the perfect balance between sheer force and ballet.
Even more impressively, Jaa has set himself apart from other contemporary martial arts movie stars, and most of those from the genre’s halcyon days of the 1980’s and 90’ by continually changing his style and adding new elements all the time. In Ong-bak, his primary martial art was Muay Boran, which is the precursor to modern Muay Thai. There is no wire-fu, no CGI, and no camera trickery; everything Jaa does Jaa does, and as the heir apparent to Jackie Chan, he does all his own stunts.
In Tom yum goong, he incorporates something he calls Muay Kodchasarn, which is a combination of Muay Thai with grappling inspired by the fighting style of elephants and makes for an incredibly brutal, potent screen fighting style. Lots of shattered limbs, people being thrown into/through/off things, and of course, the now standard Muay Thai/Muay Boran striking. There are more elaborate stunts, of course, and the fighting continues to be astounding. Tom yum goong is notable for having one of the most awesome fight scenes in history, a four-minute magnum opus that sees Jaa fight his way up four flights of stairs through a horde of gangsters and thugs in one continuous take. By the end, he’s laboring for breath and obviously tired, as was I! The production values have increased, and director Prachya Pinkaew indulges in a little CGI work, though Jaa still takes every fall and does every piece of stunt work himself, even though a few takes are in front of a green screen backdrop.
What’s next for Jaa? Why, continued innovation, of course, and a turn at the director’s chair for the first time in his career. He has been intently studying the Thai martial art Krabi Krabong, which incorporates fighting with two swords at once, and the film he is directing, Ong-bak 2, incorporates the sacred masked Thai dance kron with martial arts, adding grace to power. Yet another new wrinkle to his already impressive blend of power and execution.
There’s one thing for sure, if Jaa continues to incorporate new things to his repertoire and continues to stretch the constraints of both film magic and the human animal, he’s going to find himself as the preeminent martial arts star in the world before long. If he’s not already at the peak by now, that is. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Tony Jaa, and I really can’t wait until he’s earned the right to get his own Geek love letter from yours truly.