Tony Jaa can kick some serious behind. But can this Thai martial arts action star make the leap to American movies?


G. Allen Johnson, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 22, 2006


Tony Jaa owns two elephants, the Thai equivalent of two Porsches. That's all you need to know about how far this 30-year-old Thai martial arts movie star has come in such a short time.

"I didn't expect to be famous or have money," Jaa said through an interpreter during a recent visit to San Francisco. "If this is as far as I go, even without Hollywood success, I would be happy."

The man who aims to follow Jackie Chan and Jet Li to martial arts stardom in the United States is sitting in a downtown hotel suite, looking a little uncomfortable. In a couple of hours, Jaa will find himself more at home during a demonstration at a local martial arts school; but for the moment, the star of the worldwide hit "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior" (2003) and "The Protector," which opens Sept. 8, finds a reporter's tape recorder more daunting than a villain's attack.

"His English is getting better," said his manager, Gilbert Lim, and Jaa did seem to understand most of the questions put to him, even while responding in Thai.

Jaa was born into a poor family in a rural area of the Surin province in northeastern Thailand. As a young boy, he was inspired by the films of Bruce Lee and Chan, which he watched at rural fairs. The Hong Kong movies eventually led him to learn his father's discipline of Muay Thai, an intense, often brutal, form of boxing that was once used to entertain Thai kings.

"It's a style of martial arts that's traditional to my country," Jaa said. "It's based around using your elbows and knees, instead of your hands and feet, like Jackie Chan."

There are eight basic movements of Muay Thai, including "elephant pulverizing tree" -- a body-breaking move in which an assailant's attack is repelled by grabbing his kicking leg, bringing your elbow down on his abdomen, cracking your forearm down on his neck and throwing him to the ground. (You don't want to be on the wrong end of that one.)

As a teenager, Jaa, whose birth name is Panom Yeerum, got stunt work in Thai movies, and even worked in "Mortal Kombat: Annihilation," a Hollywood film that was partially shot in Thailand. Eventually, because Jaa's mastery of Muay Thai was so unusual, veteran Thai stunt choreographer Panna Rittikrai decided to build a film around it.

The result was "Ong-Bak," which played internationally and has been released on DVD by 20th Century Fox. The stunt work in the movie is incredible; without any wires or computer-generated effects, Jaa literally bounces all over Bangkok, jumping from building to building, sliding under cars, even getting away from a gang of thugs who think they have him cornered until Jaa escapes by walking on their shoulders.

"The Protector" is an American edit of the Thai movie "Tom-Yum Goong," which is being released by the Weinstein Co. Like "Ong-Bak," it will be in Thai with English subtitles, but will contain even more outrageous, unassisted stunts, including one eyepopper in which Jaa jumps from the edge of a tall building to hang on a helicopter.

The film is about a gang that steals his family's prized elephants, a symbol of Thai culture, which were to be offered to the King of Thailand. Jaa, naturally, is the man chosen to go to Australia and recover the pachyderms. In the process, he uncovers a government conspiracy.

In one bravura four-minute sequence -- all done in one take -- Jaa goes through a barrage of villains, punching, kicking, throwing and jumping his way up a four-story building.

With Li, 43, having made his last martial arts film (the forthcoming "Fearless") and with Chan now past 50, Jaa is suddenly the go-to star for martial arts movie fans around the world.

Nevertheless, Hollywood will have to wait. He has turned down a small role in "Rush Hour 3" due to a scheduling conflict with "Ong-Bak 2," which Jaa will direct as well as star in. Filming begins in October in Thailand.

"I have dreams, of course," Jaa said. "I'd love to work with Steven Spielberg or Jessica Alba or Tom Cruise. But I have to work hard -- I spend every day training and have little time for anything else."

But Jaa has classic tastes. When asked who is his favorite American movie star, he didn't hesitate: "I like Charlie Chaplin."

It makes sense. Like the Little Tramp, Jaa had humble beginnings, and he has a grace and style on-screen that would have made Chaplin proud.

E-mail G. Allen Johnson at