Tony Jaa: The Top Shelf of Martial Arts Cinema

Tony Jaa: The Top Shelf of Martial Arts Cinema

I didn't really understand martial arts movies until I saw a "making of" feature of one of Jackie Chan's dazzling 1990's productions. In it, Chan boiled down his creative process to the kernels of individual fight sequences, explaining that he usually gets ideas for fight choreography before he comes up with a story to justify his set pieces. I firmly believe that this shouldn't be taken as a shallow, substance-free approach to film making. Honestly, it seems more genuine and focused to build a story around a cool fight than to try to shoehorn cool fights into an existing story. That in mind, the work of martial artist/stunt man Tony Jaa and his collaborator Prachya Pinkaew is essential to modern action cinema.

A friend of mine introduced me to Tony Jaa through Ong-Bak 2, an unassuming action movie that has been making the rounds at most video stores for the past few months. I said that I really ought to see the first before I took on the sequel, to which my friend just laughed and said that the story isn't really the point of the series. One way or another, the paper-thin plots of Jaa/Pinkaew productions are just excuses to show off the unique flare of the Muay Thai fighting style.

Both films in the Ong-Bak series are some of the most consistently entertaining action movies I've seen in years. This has everything to do with Tony Jaa's skills as a screen fighter. He's Exhibit A in the case for casting martial artists in fighting movies rather than dedicated actors. What a lot of people don't know is that your standard Hollywood beat-em-up is nothing but a string of dizzying editing tricks designed to make viewers think the action is fast-paced and intense. The truth is that most of the movements those beefy blockbuster stars make are slow and deliberate, only sped up in post-production.

One look at the DVD special features of any given Tony Jaa movie makes it clear that the star really is as quick, nimble and focused as he appears in the final cut. Raw footage of his amazing stunts and choreographed fights reveal a martial artist who does with strength, balance and momentum what most actors can only do with wires and camera magic. This makes all the difference in the world. Viewers experience something real with these movies.

The icing on the cake of Ong-Bak and to a lesser extent Jaa and Pinkaew's sophomore effort Tom-Yum-Goong is that what little story is there tends to be a cut above the cheesy action fare of the West. There is a streak of Thai patriotism in them, a drive to show outsiders that there's more to Thailand than just the lurid appeal of Bangkok. Jaa's heroes, uniformly put-upon country boys with unshakable principles, have a purity to them that has been lost to American cinema since the advent of the anti-hero.

Tony Jaa's films along with other impressive Thai features like Chatrichalerm Yukol's The Legend of Suriyothai indicate a wave of stunning cinematic ambition coming out of 21st century Thailand. It's akin to the fabulous cinema of pageantry that gripped Hollywood in the 1930's and 40's. Free from cynicism and imbued with a rich culture, these films are some of the most impressive to come out of Asia in decades.