When Tony Jaa's film producer met him for the first time, she thought he was "ugly" and "couldn't act." His image consultant now says Jaa is "uncool" and is urging him to get a new haircut. His English teacher despairs that two years of lessons have yielded little more than a rudimentary grasp of the language. Listen to his minders long enough, and you may start doubting the buzz that Jaa is Southeast Asia's long-overdue answer to Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan.
Until you see Jaa in action. In a cavernous room on the third floor of a stunt training center in Bangkok, Jaa bobs on the mat like a gymnast lining up a run to the vaulting horse. At the end of the room, a crew member holds aloft a cushion that stands in for a human head. Jaa hurtles down the runway, launches himself like a missile, flips in midair and brings his right foot crashing down on the cushion. The kick sends the cushion—and the unfortunate guy holding it—flying across the room. Jaa lands on his feet and smiles.
In Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, the stunt man-turned-actor leaps across boiling oil, ballets above an array of tuk tuks and beats up anyone foolish enough to challenge him. The insane inventiveness of the stunts—done without special effects, wirework or apparent concern for Jaa's life and limb—has turned into box-office gold in Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, South Korea and even France, where the film found a fan and international distributor in action auteur Luc Besson. Besson recut the film and secured a U.S. distribution deal with Magnolia Pictures. Expectations are high that Ong Bak and Jaa will break big in North America when the movie is released in February.
Jaa, whose real name is Phanom Yeeram, grew up in Thailand's rural northeast, a region most notable for its poverty and, in the early 1980s, the occasional mortar round fired across the Cambodian border by the Khmer Rouge. "Some days we'd be sitting down to dinner and the mortars would explode in the village, blowing out our windows and doors," Jaa says. He escaped these grim realities by viewing the films of Chan and Lee on outdoor screens at temple fairs. "It was powerful for me to watch," he says. "What they did was so beautiful, so heroic. I wanted to do it, too." Jaa practiced in his father's rice paddy or, when bathing the family's elephants, by somersaulting off their backs into the river. "I practiced," he says, "until I could do the move exactly as I had seen the masters do it."
At 15, Jaa sought out the Thai stunt coordinator and low-budget action director Panna Ritthikrai, who took him on as a protégé. He went to a gymnastics college and soon found work as a stunt man in local and international films, including 1997's Mortal Kombat 2. Then he and Ritthikrai started devising their own stunts inspired by muay boran, a more elegant and traditional form of Thai boxing that resembles kung fu. Jaa traveled the countryside talking to the few remaining old masters of muay boran, rediscovering more than 100 long-abandoned moves. Ritthikrai and Jaa filmed the actor's best stunts and showed them to Bangkok director Prachya Pinkaew. The filmmaker was dazzled but had problems getting backing for a film with Jaa in the lead role. "Thai audiences are not used to seeing people from the northeast in the lead," says Sita Vosbein, managing director of Pinkaew's production house, Baa Ram Ewe. "They think people with dark skin are uneducated and ugly. They are always cast as bad guys." When the film was a hit, Jaa felt accepted at last. "I have never been so proud," he says. "I've been fighting discrimination since I was very young. For people to appreciate the beauty of the ancient art of boxing, instead of focusing on what I look like or where I come from, was what I had always dreamed."
Now Jaa is so busy filming his second movie, Tom Yum Goong, in Thailand and Australia, that he has no time to improve his wardrobe, his hairstyle or his English. "Bruce Lee couldn't speak Thai," Jaa says. "And I loved him, anyway."