Movies: The Next Action Hero

With flying feet and a unique style, Thailand's Tony Jaa is ready to take on Jackie Chan and Jet Li

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A huge hit in Thailand, Ong-Bak generated brisk box office in Asia, then in Europe after French auteur Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Fifth Element) bought the rights to the film, trimmed a few minutes and slapped on a new music track. Even before its February opening in 20 U.S. cities, the movie has sparked a rabid cult, thanks to festival showings, bootleg DVD imports and Internet downloading.

Jaa has picked up heavyweight Holly-wood fans, from Brett Ratner, director of Chan's Rush Hour smashes, to Quentin Tarantino, who screened Ong-Bak at his home with his pal the RZA of the iconic rap group Wu-Tang Clan. "Tony is my homey, yo," says the RZA. "He's young, energetic--a new breed of martial artist born in the hip-hop generation."

That's a big claim for a guy with just one starring role. Jaa still lacks Chan's Everyman charisma, Jet Li's eerie agility, Lee's smoldering gravity. Now working on his second feature with Pinkaew, Tom Yum Goong, Jaa says, "I want a strong foundation in Thailand. Hollywood? Maybe in the future."

So give him a year or two. That could be when, in hip-hop-Hollywood terms, Jaa rules. --Reported by Jeffrey Ressner/Los Angeles

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