The James Clayton Column: Tony Jaa’s path to enlightenment

As Tony Jaa finds enlightenment, James wonders if other actors may be tempted to follow a similar path...

Back in the good old days you knew you’d finally made it when Zeus etched your form into the night sky. With the decline of the Roman Empire and the arrival of motion pictures, however, ancient aspiration to become a constellation shifted into an ambition to get a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame instead.

Screen idol status is the high peak on the scale of life’s impossible possibilities. Make it, and you’ll realise absolute self-fulfilment, spiritual excellence and find your soul in blissful harmony. Achieve cult adoration from cinema audiences, become a deified icon of celluloid reels, and you’ve found nirvana, my friends. This is why virgins sacrifice themselves on Hollywood Boulevard and why Hugh Hefner’s garden parties will always be more popular than the Pope’s.

It’s shocking, then, to think that someone well on their way up to the cinematic stratosphere would exchange it all for an ascetic lifestyle of solitude. Nevertheless, that’s what Tony Jaa has gone and done, deciding that the path to spiritual perfection is actually in a Buddhist monastery and not in blockbuster moviemaking.

The star of Ong Bak and Tom-Yung-Goong had established himself as Thailand’s less-charismatic successor to Bruce Lee, a Muay warrior whose action flicks are awesome compilations of organic stunt set-pieces, tuk-tuk chases and tremendous martial arts battles.

Ad – content continues below

Now having rode into a temple atop an elephant, shaved his head and taken vows, it’s reasonable to suggest that there’ll be no high octane output from Jaa for a while.

I’ll only really be able to appreciate Jaa’s legacy once I’ve finally had the opportunity to see Ong Bak 2 (shame on all the local cinemas for deciding that it didn’t deserve the screen time). Nevertheless, as a chopsocky fan, I know that the Muay Thai master’s decision to dedicate himself to religious observance and monasticism is a blow to action cinema. So much potential is now sitting dormant in lotus position beneath the bodhi tree.

This news has raised some difficult, disturbing metaphysical questions. Is there really something more sacred than cinema? Is service within a special secluded religious order the true passage to enlightenment?

While on summer holiday, I wandered around lots of churchy buildings and got the chance to talk to a fair few Italian old ladies who’ve devoted their life to holy service. In broken English they shared their experiences and all admitted that, despite the perks, in private they longed to punch people in the face or dig their elbow into someone’s groin. Monasticism represses their primal urge to commit heinous acts of violence, practice martial arts routines and spend Sunday morning watching Chow Yun-Fat movies instead of attending mass.

They’re utterly miserable. Just like prison inmate Alex in A Clockwork Orange, they’re hiding behind the good book and posing as models of wholesome piety, all the while reading the Old Testament to gratify their sexual, ultraviolent fantasies.

Frustrated at the vocation that has forced them to deny their true selves, the surveyed sisters all harboured a deep grudge against Sister Act.

Ad – content continues below

Nevertheless, Tony Jaa’s choice appears more solid, seeing as his revelation wasn’t delivered by Whoopi Goldberg (you’ve seen Ghost. You know that she’s a fraud.). His religious remit stems from his films, in which the leading man seeks to retrieve the sacred head of Buddha, bring spiritual blessing on his village and prove his worth as a reverent defender of the faith. It’s a natural progression from screen to reality, only this time no one throws an elephant through the window.

It’s life imitating art and I’m all in favour of that. If it happened more often we’d have Picasso people roaming through Paris and Lowry matchstick folk dancing through the streets of Manchester.

This is not a blow to the movies. This is an exciting opportunity for the world to evolve into a better, more imaginative and harmonious place.

Thinking about movies and Tony Jaa’s spiritual journey, I’ve glanced over film history and checked the movement of the planets. The cumulative signs all point to the following actors finding religion off the back of past roles…

Jack Nicholson: philosophical writer

Taking residence in an isolated off-season mountain hotel, Nicholson will retire to write mantras of immense wisdom (“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy”), honing his extrasensory perception and conferring with ghosts when he’s not typing. The jaded star of Chinatown shall thus find intellectual stimulation, interesting supernatural companionship and success for the illustrative – albeit slightly repetitive – book ‘Shining for Dummies’.

Ad – content continues below

Jack Black: Mexican lucha libre monk

Renouncing Tenacious D and frat pack comedies to devote himself to altruism and religious observance, Jables will flee to a Roman Catholic church in Oaxaca and care for orphan kids. To feed the impoverished youngsters, the Nacho Libre actor is going to pour his unrelenting energy into his sideline wrestling career. All will go well on this new vocation until he falls in love with a nun. Kicked out the order, JB will only be allowed back into the brotherhood once he’s beaten Beelzebub in a rock-off.

Jeff Goldblum: fly

Transcending limits of anatomy and ego state, Jeff shall become one with the insect, fusing his being into a superhuman hybrid. In the alchemical process of metamorphosis, Goldblum renders God obsolete and accesses true animal nature as The Fly emerges as science non-fiction. Sadly, he deteriorates and dies before he can lead humanity to bold, buzzing new horizons.

Tom Cruise: Bushido warrior

Scientology, baby Suri and the Mission: Impossible series have not bought Tom Cruise happiness. Inspired by The Last Samurai, he’ll withdraw into the Zen of the Bushido code and take residence in rural Japan to find inner peace. It’s just a shame that the incredible bullet-proof samurai armour won’t be able to repel the Thetan death rays that L. Ron Hubbard’s hit squad will fire at their runaway representative.

Ad – content continues below

Samuel L. Jackson: man who walks the Earth

Just like Kane in Kung Fu, Sammy is to have what alcoholics refer to as ‘a moment of clarity’ and abstain from F-bombs and gangster deeds. Though some people would call him a bum for doing so, the Pulp Fiction and Snakes On A Plane actor is going to decide to just walk the Earth.

And they’ll all be at peace, until they finally see Ong Bak 2 and feel a sudden urge to go on an ultraviolent bender and bitchslap hoodlums in a Bangkok fight club. A kick to the solar plexus – ah, nirvana…

James’ previous column can be found here.