Bunch of villains chases the hero through back streets clogged with human traffic. Nothing new there. But watch the way Thailand's Tony Jaa uses his daredevil energy and grace to obliterate action-movie clichés in the pummeling, exhilarating Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior. With a spring in his sneakers, he vaults over a pyramid of tires, a flotilla of cars and a class of children while being pursued by a gang of thugs. He dives through a ring of barbed wire, glides under moving vehicles. He jogs up pedestrians' backs and tiptoes on their heads. In this thrilling 5 1/2-min. scene, Jaa defies gravity, death, logic and all those out-of-breath bad guys.
Action-movie stars have become geriatric lately. Arnold is Governor, Sly is about to become a reality-show host, Jean-Claude Van Damme toils in direct-to-video. Jackie Chan is almost a creaky 50, and Jet Li doesn't work much anymore. The genre needs another hero, and Jaa (Thai name: Phanom Yeerum) is the fellow to fill the void. He's young--28--and good-looking, with a quiet élan to match his athletic skill. He's also a throwback to kung-fu film's early days, when stars and stunt men alike took a licking and kept on kicking. Ong-Bak has no crouching, no hiding, no wires, no pixel-perfected stunts. Like Chan's early epics, it convinces you that the mayhem is real, that the star is enduring the pain for your pleasure.
"Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Bruce Lee are my masters--they're the inspiration for my work," says Jaa, speaking through an interpreter. "Bruce Lee was a heavy fighter who threw hard punches. Jackie moves very fast and uses a lot of comedy, and Jet Li is very fluid. I've tried to combine all of their styles and added some things of my own."
With its primitive action premise (a sacred MacGuffin has been stolen; you go get it back), Ong-Bak needs the things Jaa can add. And there are plenty. As Ting, a country-boy studying to be a monk who has been taught Muay Thai martial arts and goes to Bangkok to retrieve a missing Buddha head, Jaa battles a series of Asian and Caucasian bruisers with fists, feet, elbows, head--he uses them all in his full-body barrage--with a sleek intensity and jaw-swiveling impact unique in movie martial arts. He also knows how to take a fall. In one match, he gets on the wrong end of a killer kick and executes a triple twist before hitting the canvas, as if Greg Louganis were doing a gold-medal dive from a curb into a puddle. And stick around for Jaa's higher, higher, pants-on-fire stunt, in which he twirls and kicks while swathed in flames.
Like most other martial-arts stars, Jaa has been preparing since childhood. Born to elephant trainers in the hard-luck northeast province of Surin, the boy watched kung-fu movies on outdoor screens during temple festivals. Soon he was aping his heroes and studying gymnastics as well as Muay Thai, an ancient Siamese boxing discipline that is a kind of combination of karate and kickboxing. He worked as a stunt man, doubling Robin Shou in Mortal Kombat, before director Prachya Pinkaew saw a reel of Jaa's best stunts and built Ong-Bak around him.