Fighting for attention

Tony Jaa continues to make a name
for himself with 'The Protector'

Tony Jaa is fighting mad in 'The Protector.'
Try Saying That Three Times Fast: Jaa stars as a 'Jaturungkabarat,' a special Thai soldier trained to protect royal elephants.
It's a throwaway scene inserted for a cheap laugh that lasts just a few seconds in "The Protector," the latest martial arts vehicle for budding Thai action star Tony Jaa. But the scene – in which Jaa bumps into and then apologizes to a Jackie Chan look-alike as he passes by him in an Australian airport – looms large symbolically.

"It was the director's idea, just a gag," said Jaa, through an interpreter. "The budget couldn't afford the real Jackie Chan.

"I don't want to replace Bruce Lee, Jet Li or Jackie Chan - they're my heroes…. I look at them as my teachers. I would just like to be Tony Jaa."

Modesty aside, the 30-year-old ductile actor emerged in 2003 as the next great hope of martial arts enthusiasts with his acrobatics and mastery of the Muay Thai fighting style in the movie "Ong-Bak." Expectations are even higher for "The Protector," which reunites Jaa with "Ong-Bak" writer and director Prachya Pinkaew, only with a bigger budget. The movie will be released by the Weinstein Company on this side of the Pacific Sept. 8.

There is a void fans would like Jaa to fill: Jet Li is contemplating retirement from the genre; Jackie Chan is on the wrong side of 50 to keep performing his trademark stunts at the same level; Hollywood action actors like Sylvester Stallone, Jean-Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal have long since faded from the radar. The question is whether mainstream audiences will come to the same conclusion.

"There is no one else doing the kind of non-wire-assisted, non-CGI choreography now except him, so in that sense he really is the successor to the Jackie Chan kind of movie," said Mark Pollard, editor/founder of

Exhibit A is a scene in "The Protector" in which Jaa's character, Kham, has to run up a circular staircase to the top floor of a restaurant, dispatching dozens of villainous henchmen along the way. Stuntmen are punched, kicked, flipped over, thrown through wooden partitions and tossed over railings. Dubbed the "Four Minute Take" since the action scene was filmed in one continuous take without cuts, Jaa - who doubled as the film's action choreographer - calls it "the most difficult scene in the movie."

It took eight takes to nail the scene. One was thwarted after Jaa reached the third floor and was poised to hurl a stuntman off the balcony, only to realize the safety precautions were not in place. Another take was ruined after Jaa reached the fourth floor and delivered his last line only to discover that the camera had run out of film.

At first a foreign cameraman was hired to follow Jaa with a handheld camera for the sequence, but was replaced by a Thai cameraman when it became apparent he couldn't keep up with Jaa. The replacement cameraman did ultimately manage to film the scene, said Jaa, but not before undergoing a month-long physical training regimen.

The result was worth it. The scene is a first-person shooter video game come to life and another example of Jaa earning his (karate) chops.

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"Jaa may not become the type of superstar action hero that actors like Stallone and Seagal became years ago, but there is certainly money to be made in the Tony Jaa business and the action audience is always looking for content whether it be in theaters or on video," said Gitesh Pandya, editor of "Today's highest-grossing action films tend to be special effects-driven films, so I wouldn't be surprised if Jaa gets cast in a supporting role in an effects-heavy action movie in the next year or two."

That is the route that Jet Li took to Hollywood, making his American debut as a villain in "Lethal Weapon 4."

There are already rumors of Jaa being cast alongside Jackie Chan for a sequel to Chan's popular "Drunken Master" franchise; reports are that director Brett Ratner wanted to sign him for "Rush Hour 3." Jaa, though, said he knows of no concrete offers.

Jaa claims he is no hurry to leave Thailand for greener pastures. But Pollard believes that the small scale of the country's film industry works against Jaa becoming a household name. Between the subtitles and the lack of emphasis on story development, a lot of those movies' appeal may be lost in translation for American moviegoers.

The plot of "The Protector," largely an excuse to get Jaa into fight sequences as quickly as possible, revolves around Kham's battle to return his family's two kidnapped elephants from Australia. It may not be a universally relatable dilemma, but it is personal for Jaa, whose family still owns two elephants named Leaf and Flower.

Like Kham, Jaa is the son of farmers, a product of rural Thailand, in his case Surin province, 200 kilometers removed from Bangkok. If he hadn't discovered the lure of action movies as an adolescent, watching them during outdoor festivals on the grounds of Buddhist temples, he said he would have ended up as a monk or a teacher. He still finds time to meditate when he wants to work out a fighting sequence in his head.

Also like Kham, Jaa finds himself getting his bearings in a foreign land. Instead of looking for kidnapped elephants in Sydney like the character he plays, he found himself this week in New York on a publicity tour to promote "The Protector."

"The character was very similar to my life growing up – one thing that isn't similar though, I don't really have to run after people and fight them," said Jaa, laughing.

It may not be that long before he doesn't need to fight to get the attention of mainstream audiences either.

Originally published on August 24, 2006