"Why "The Protector"'s Tony Jaa is preserving martial arts cinema for a new generation of fans -- and why its survival is so important."

By Jeff Yang, Special to SF Gate
Thursday, August 31, 2006

With the heavyweights beginning to fade, it's time for a new contender to step into the ring. Jeff Yang explains why "The Protector"'s Tony Jaa is preserving martial arts cinema for a new generation of fans -- and why its survival is so important.

I saw my first martial arts movie the way they were always meant to be seen: in the armpit-like confines of a Chinatown double-feature grind house, surrounded by the faintly libidinous odor of cigarettes and dried squid (not to mention the musky tang of Drakkar Noir wafting off the guys with dark sunglasses and hyperactive beepers sitting directly behind us).

As I vaguely recall, the film was "The Three Avengers," a better-forgotten swatch of celluloid featuring one of the more interesting Bruce Lee clones, Taiwanese actor Ho Chung-tao (a.k.a. Bruce Li), alongside Jackie Chan-wannabe Chin Yuet Sang and token white dude Michael Winston.

Even to my 12-year-old self, it was apparent that the plot and acting were rubbish, but for a first introduction to the medium, this was almost a virtue: The lack of narrative merit eliminated any distractions to the giddy comic pratfalls and intricate choreography taking place on the Music Palace's stained and dented silver screen.

I'd seen "The Empire Strikes Back" earlier that summer, the movie that sealed the deal on the new era of blockbuster cinema (given that the success of the original "Star Wars" was a shocker to everybody -- it was Episode VI that proved the tide had really and truly turned). As much as I appreciated TESB's technical wizardry and epic scope, this low-budget smackfest had a mysterious allure that no amount of SFX could replicate.

By the time the last scratchy, dust-spackled reel went dark, I was hooked. And with each martial arts film I've seen since, most of them far superior to my initial dose, the hook has sunk deeper. That's why it's been such a heart-wrenching experience seeing the giants of the genre, the ones who brought it into its golden age, entering the twilight of their careers.

After his forthcoming epic, "Fearless," Jet Li has stated that he'll no longer make martial arts films (though he's since hedged that statement, indicating that he won't give up all action film -- just those that focus on hand-to-hand combat). And late last year, Jackie Chan made another of his seasonal musings about retirement -- suggesting that, given the arrival of his 50th birthday, he expected to spend less time getting kicked in the head and more time behind the scenes and behind the camera. He, too, quickly issued a retraction of sorts, announcing to his fans that he'd continue making martial arts films "for as long as he can" -- which, given the horribly battered state of his body, is a far from optimistic statement.

In fact, it's safe bet that a few short years from now, neither of these stars will be making the kinds of films we've come to want and expect from them ... and the "farm team" behind them is sparse, to say the least. Wushu standout Donnie Yen has never had the temperament or cinematic presence to rival the Big Two -- and at 43, he is already of an age with his more famous rivals. Western screen-fighting aspirants like Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme jump-kicked the shark long ago. Most of what's left is a motley assortment of wired-up and CGI-supported sex symbols more familiar with the marital arts than the martial ones.

With one singular exception.

Unassuming, plain-spoken and almost painfully humble, in the space of just two movies, the Thai phenom named Panom Yeerum has kneed, punched and elbowed his way into the screen-fight spotlight, generating accolades from the likes of "Rush Hour" director Bruce Rattner (whose obvious man-crush has reduced him to gushing phrases like "I want him! I love him!") and rapper The RZA ("He's as fast as Bruce Lee, with the agility of Jackie Chan ... he's a sensation").

Panom Yeerum is, of course, better known to the West as Tony Jaa, star of the low-budget Muay Thai lollapalooza "Ong Bak: The Thai Warrior." And with the much-heralded release of his follow-up "The Protector" on Sept. 8, Jaa's name is poised to become a household word.

Heir Frame

It's a blink-and-you'll-miss-it movie moment. Jaa, as "The Protector"'s elephant-trainer Kham, has traveled from his rural Thai village to the big city -- Sydney, Australia -- in search of his family's prized pachyderms, which have been kidnapped by corrupt Chinese mobsters. Wide-eyed and gawking at Kingsford Smith International Airport's bustling multicultural crowd, he stumbles into a passenger walking briskly in the other direction. The camera captures Jaa and the man he's collided with for just an instant, before Jaa brushes himself off and continues apologetically on his way. That round nose, those weathered eyes, the poufy, slightly '70s-looking hair -- could Jaa's inadvertent crash victim possibly be ... Jackie Chan?

As a matter of fact -- contrary to lots of online speculation -- it isn't. Nevertheless, even the inclusion of a celebrity double in such a scene has given rise to talk that the scene was Jaa's attempt at "inviting" Chan to engage in a real-life collaboration. Or, more modestly, a simple hat-tip to the man he acknowledges as a hero. Or, less modestly, a veiled suggestion that the crown of action king has been passed from old champ Chan to new jack Jaa.

The truth may disappoint: The inclusion of the scene wasn't Jaa's decision at all. "Many people have asked about it, but the truth is, it was a scene put in by the director!" says an embarrassed-sounding Jaa through his interpreter, Gilbert Lim.

Far from throwing down a gauntlet or holding his hand out for a torch, Jaa's attitude toward Chan and the other stars he considers his fighting forefathers is deeply respectful, almost reverent. "Drunken Master" -- Chan's star-making vehicle -- "was one of the films that made me want to become a martial artist," says Jaa.

"From Jackie, I learned the ability to combine fighting with gymnastics and death-defying stunts and comedy. That style is unique to Jackie. And from Bruce Lee, I learned how to bring real martial arts into the cinematic world -- to fight very fast, very strong, almost to the point of actual violence. That style is unique to Bruce. And from Jet Li, I learned grace and beauty, the importance of technique, which is unique to Jet. I've tried to harness each of their uniquenesses and combine them with my own style of combat. And hopefully, the result is something unique to Tony Jaa."

That's what puts the "arts" in martial arts, after all: It's about synthesis and homage, taking the best chops of one's predecessors and shaping them with new and innovative ideas. (Your old master's Snake Fist isn't strong enough to defeat the deadly Eagle Claw? Check it out, that cat's kicking a cobra's butt. Bingo, Snake Fist becomes Cat's Claw! Eat hot feline, Eagle Claw master!)

Jaa's ability to learn and leap ahead can be seen throughout "The Protector" and its predecessor, "Ong Bak." Jackie Chan refined and, some might argue, perfected the action chase that uses every prop and surface as a springboard to mayhem. But Jaa's chases amp up the pace and add a darker edge -- people don't sprawl and tumble safely out of the way in a Tony Jaa chase, they're plowed through and under. Passersby are seen losing life and limb, and the camera continues on its hysterical, adrenaline-fueled way. It's a harsh answer to the question often asked of such scenes -- "How is it that no one ever seems to get hurt in a movie chase?" -- with the answer being, "Sometimes they do. And really badly."

How about the roundhouse brawl, where countless attackers swarm a single solo fighter? Bruce Lee's methodical many-versus-one melees would seem to have set the bar unreachably high. But Jaa takes Lee's mob fights and turns up the volume and the pitch. In "Fist of Fury," nunchaku-wielding Lee took on a dozen anonymous villains at a time. In an apocalyptic sequence near "The Protector"'s climax, an unarmed Jaa efficiently kills and disables upward of 40 assassins one by one, using a spectacular array of Muay Thai maiming methods: elbow torques, knee crushes, forehead slams, throat punches. Opponents are knocked insensate or jointed like Thanksgiving turkeys, and by battle's end, a pile of unmoving corpses and casualties lies nearly two deep around Jaa's feet.

And what about Jet Li's specialty -- the moving fight, up and around a rickety structure? Li has shown time and again his effortless poise and inventive flexibility when battling on poles, up staircases, in the crumbling rafters of decaying buildings. In "The Protector"'s tour de force, Jaa storms the atrium of a mobster's private club, and in one long mise en scene fights his way up through four stories of villains -- level by level, room to room, without cuts, camera tracking every blow and tumble. "There were a lot of really, really tough stunts in 'The Protector,' but that one four-minute shot, that was the most difficult," says Jaa, noting that each element had to go exactly as planned, in precisely synchronized fashion, for the sequence to work.

Though Jaa doesn't quite have Chan's sense of comic timing, Lee's effortless menace or Li's balletic elegance, the word that springs to mind upon reflection is "yet." Jaa's potential seems limitless. He's a youthful 30, with a more powerful, balanced and agile athleticism than any of his three "spiritual mentors." And he brings with him a set of techniques and forms that have never been showcased before in martial cinema: the crisply vicious discipline of Muay Thai.

Thai Me Up, Thai Me Down

They call it the Deadly Art, and for good reason. Muay Thai is a fighting style that emphasizes quick, direct blows to vulnerable spots using the hardest parts of the body -- the elbows, the knees, the forehead. It looks nothing like the circular, fluid strokes of Jet Li's wushu forms or the stylized kung-fusion blend concocted by Jackie Chan. It's hard, economical and nasty.

Jaa's signature move is a primal, full-contact blow, in which he launches himself in a screaming arc toward his target to slam both of his knees into his opponent's head or chest, with devastating results. Integrated with Jaa's screen-friendly gymnastics and modern, prop-based choreography, the style is utterly distinctive, especially as presented in the no-holds-barred "Protector."

But the form's very brutality presents something of a contradiction. Jaa is one of the most pleasant and mild-mannered people you're ever likely to meet -- truly a representative of the "Land of Smiles," as he says himself, and like most Thais a devout Buddhist. The paradox of a friendly and frankly rather goofy guy engaging in violence of the most bone-crunching, neck-snapping, vertebrae-impacting variety is hard to wrap one's head around.

"I know that my movies, especially 'The Protector,' may seem almost too violent, but there is an inner message in it -- good is better than evil, good things come to good people and bad people get bad karma in the end," says Jaa. "You must tell people that when they see Tony Jaa in a movie, that's not what he's all about. I'm a man of peace. I'm a Buddhist. I have never fought or hurt anyone before! I want people to see Thailand as a place and a people that is extremely nice."

The original title of "The Protector" was "Tom Yum Goong," after the pungent national soup of Thailand. It's understandable that the Weinstein Co. felt the need to change the movie's name, which is not only unpronounceable to Western audiences but also comparable to calling an American action movie "Clam Chowder." But "Tom Yum Goong" does a far better job of metaphorically representing the man whose talents make it worth watching: sweet but with unexpected bite. And one helluva kick.

Martial Arts, Meet Fight Science

The helpless-looking underdog with startling superpowers. That's the deep theme that supports the entire mythology around the martial arts. Bruce Lee weighed less than 140 pounds and in street clothes could be mistaken for a spindly average joe. But he could uncoil the ripped and chiseled muscles in his body with such power that a punch from an inch away would send a 300-pound man staggering into the arms of his friends. Jackie Chan and Jet Li are both well under 5 feet 8 inches and into middle age, yet they are still capable of physical feats that produce inadvertent gasps of awe.

Martial arts are the great equalizer -- the tool that promises self-defense for petite women against giant male attackers, the discipline used by unarmed peasants to beat back sword-wielding intruders. An old friend of mine named James Yee, who stands maybe 5 feet 9 inches and weighs at most 130 pounds, once told me how he was attacked by a small gang of delinquents and ended up instinctively disabling the entire crew with nothing more than a small collapsible umbrella. Needless to say, James has studied Hung Gar kung fu for most of his adult life.

But trained experts in any fighting discipline will tell you that the man-versus-man aspect of martial arts is secondary. The ultimate struggle represented by martial arts is that of man against himself -- forcing down the demons within and pushing back the limits without. Martial arts are about overcoming obstacles and optimizing the mind and body beyond what is conventionally considered possible. A new documentary on the National Geographic Channel, "Fight Science" (encore airing Monday, Sept. 4, at 9 p.m.), seeks to offer empirical evidence of just how far beyond the human norm martial artists can go.

In the doc, a team of biomechanics researchers and automotive crash-test specialists measures the punching and kicking force, hand and reflex speed and balancing ability of a set of world-class martial artists, including Bruce Lee confidante Dan Inosanto, champion grappler Royce Gracie and Alex Huynh, three-time national gold medalist in wushu. What they find is extraordinary: A heavyweight boxer's punch delivers almost 1,000 pounds of impact, while a braced Muay Thai knee blow delivers destructive force equivalent to a 35 mph car crash. A kung fu blow travels at 40 feet per second -- quadruple the speed of a striking snake. A tae kwon do expert reacts to stimuli in less than 0.18 seconds -- twice as fast as the blink of an eye.

What's most fascinating is the individual they dub the "ultimate warrior," and the method they use to arrive at that conclusion. Glen Levy is a New Zealand-based stuntman and fight choreographer whose resume includes work on "Xena," "Lord of the Rings" and "Power Rangers." He's studied over a dozen martial arts and attained top ranks in at least five. But the one he's depicted on the program as being an expert in is the most enigmatic and controversial of all: ninjutsu, the legendary art of the ninja.

It's not clear at all whether the contemporary fighting arts taught as ninjutsu were ever used by the real "shadow warriors." Still, regardless of one's position on its historical connections, ninjutsu is a real -- and deadly -- martial art, focusing on the use of leverage, balancing, joint manipulation and, most importantly, precision attacks at nerve centers and vulnerable organs.

Small and wiry, Levy is dwarfed by nearly all of the other martial artists on the show. Yet on command, he performs a hammer strike to the chest that the engineers report delivers destructive force equivalent to that of a Muay Thai knee-kick -- more than enough to kill a man in a single swift blow.

"It's the David and Goliath story," says Levy. "With perfect technique, size, to a point, doesn't matter. That's part of the allure of martial arts: People as a whole feel weak and disempowered, and martial arts gives people the power back."

Which returns us to the reason why martial arts movies are so alluring, more now, perhaps, than ever -- and so important. In an era when technology mediates everything we do, when entire cities can be shattered at the push of a remote button, martial arts cinema brings the act of violence down to scale, showing the human face of conflict: man against man, hand to hand, strength against strength. But they also show the superbeing hidden beneath the skin of the everyman -- an identity that promises to be reachable, with practice, training and discipline.

In short, they remind us we're human, while showing us we can be so much more.

The contradictions of Tony Jaa, a small guy with enormous talent, suddenly begin to make sense. He's spreading peace by showing the effects of violence. He's pulling his country and culture into the modern world's spotlight using its most ancient arts. He's getting people to smile by making fictitious evildoers scream, and creating friends and admirers by smashing cinematic enemies.

And in the process, he's giving hope to countless fans of martial arts cinema, fans like me, that the genre, far from being over, is facing its best days yet -- that it's alive and kicking, one evildoer's butt at a time.

Jeff Yang forecasts new Asian and Asian American consumer trends for the market research company Iconoculture www.iconoculture.com. He is the author of "Once Upon a Time in China: A Guide to the Cinemas of Hong Kong, Taiwan and Mainland China" (Atria Books) and co-author of "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life in Action" (Ballantine) and "Eastern Standard Time" (Mariner/Houghton Mifflin). He lives in New York City. Go to www.ouatic.com/mojomail/mojo.pl to join Jeff Yang's biweekly mailing list offering updates on this column and alerts about other breaking Asian and Asian American pop-culture news.