In Jaa’s film debut, Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior, the stuntman turned actor materializes his dream of being a Thai action hero and welcomes the opportunity to work with his mentor, Rithikrai, who trained him in kung fu and stunt work many years ago.
In the film, out Feb. 11, Jaa plays Ting – an orphan raised by a monk who teaches him the art of Muay Thai (Nine Body Weapons) but makes him promise he will never use it to cause anyone harm. When a gang leader from Bangkok steals the sacred Ong Bak, a Buddha statue from Ting’s village, Ting is chosen to retrieve the sacred item.
Ting dives into Bangkok’s underworld and quickly gets involved in a high-speed chase adventure with former friend George (Petchthai Wongkamlao), who has morphed into a scam-artist hustler, and his sidekick Muay Lek (Pumwaree Yodkamol). Ting battles an evil crime boss, a gang, and even fights in illegal boxing matches.
In the film, numerous shots of Jaa’s aerial movements prove to be visually extraordinary. The martial arts action is often shown numerous times, capturing every angle of Jaa’s agile movements as he jumps over cars, walks on people’s shoulders and squeezes through the tightest spaces.
One begins to think that Jaa has a death wish when, in one particular scene, he even sets himself on fire to combat his attacker.
"I actually got burned during that scene," remembers Jaa. "I really had to concentrate because once my pants were on fire, the flames spread upward very fast. [I] burned my eyebrows, my eyelashes and my nose – then we had to do a couple more takes to get it right!"
As a child, Jaa says he would mimic his heroes’ movements after seeing them perform onscreen. After working on many film sets, Jaa got his big break as Robin Shou’s stunt double in the 1997 film Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. He studied a form of martial arts called Muay Thai, which focuses mainly on action with the elbows and knees, for Ong Bak.
There was an eight-year delay in bringing the movie to the big screen, with the choreography alone taking about four years to master. Jaa explains that other reasons for the delay were because Muay Thai films are traditionally unsuccessful, along with the industry’s skepticism about whether or not the film would find an audience. It was also a challenge to find financing and a director.
"I did not have many expectations for the film," Jaa says through the assistance of an interpreter. "I wanted to see myself on film because I worked as a stuntman before. I wanted to show Thai people what I can do, and have them accept me and embrace the film."
Ong Bak could be Jaa’s springboard to success as a Thai action hero. His skills are extraordinary and, if that’s not enough, he performs a lot of his stunts in the film minus the assistance of traditional safety wires.
Before this interview, Jaa even gave a demonstration of his captivating skills. After a series of kicks, flips and tumbles – after which he always landed lightly on his feet – Jaa concluded that he still doesn’t like being compared to the masters.
Mentioning his name alongside theirs, however, does make him smile.