It's two o'clock in the afternoon at the Ritz-Carlton, and action star Tony Jaa, promoting his new movie, Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, is still without lunch. He's going to have to wait a bit, however, because he's gearing up for his third or fourth local news exhibition of the day. You'd assume that he'd be frustrated, exhausted and irritable. But Jaa, 29, sees things differently -- he wants his film to make a worldwide impact, and if that calls for days and weeks of repetitious drollery, he's more than eager for the task.
And how's this for an entrance: Jaa's crew of about six is arranged double-file facing the door, standing upright. Jaa lets out a war cry from the adjoining hall, blazes through the door, leaps five or so feet into the air, and skips across each person's shoulders, only to land in perfect form. He cordially acknowledges the applause, puts on a grin, and acts as if what just happened is something you see every day in Philadelphia.
A little later, after a full stunt show and a quick lunch, Jaa explains how he "grew up on the movies of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li," and wanted to be a part of the scene.
Indeed, he's always yearned to be an action star -- but in his own way. While his aforementioned idols practice a stylized version of kung fu, Jaa's martial arts specialty is muay thai, a form closely associated with his native Thailand. "Like any other martial arts, muay thai has the same roots in nature," he explains, "but muay thai has a lot more elbows and knees."
In Ong-Bak, Jaa plays Ting, a muay thai prodigy who travels from his small village to Bangkok in order to retrieve the town's sacred, and stolen, Buddha. As one can imagine, Jaa fends off the bad guys, and does so quite impressively -- frequently knocking out those twice his size with one forceful knee to the solar plexus. Aside from fighting (and winning, always), Jaa also jumps through flaming hoops, ascends walls and slides under moving cars -- a recipe for pain.
"I've had all sorts of injuries," he coolly explains. "I'm frequently bruised throughout my body and have gotten some sprained ankles and torn ligaments." He's never broken a bone, however.
And while many may perceive muay thai as just another form of violence, its core, according to Jaa, is deeply rooted in the individual's Buddhist faith. "It's the essence of muay thai to have the essence of Buddhism in you," he notes. "It's a power that comes from within."
Jaa hopes Ong-Bak will catapult him to worldwide fame, but he also expresses that his main desire in creating films is to represent Thai culture in an accurate light, with muay thai being the perfect vehicle for that. "I want to portray Thailand the right way, and to fix some worldwide perceptions about us that are false," he says.
So will there ever be a showdown between Jaa and his idol, Jackie Chan? "Never," he boldly expresses. "He is my master, and I would never consider fighting him." This is lucky for Jackie Chan, because muay thai would destroy kung fu any day.