When the Thai action film Ong-Bak opened in the United States, martial arts film fans finally were let in on a secret other film fans around the world already knew- that newcomer Tony Jaa could very well be the next major star in the martial arts film world. With a speed that rivals the famed Bruce Lee and an agility that recalls Jackie Chan, Jaa seemingly came out of stun audiences with his swiftness, ferocity and grace.
Now with Jaa’s second film, The Protector, rolling out across the country, there is a definite push to raise Jaa’s profile among this country’s movie-going public. In the weeks leading up to the release of the film Jaa has made several public appearances, demonstrating with his team of trained stuntmen his skill in Muay Thai or Thai boxing, showing that the skills he displays on film are no camera trick of computer generated enhancement. Such demonstrations are an extension of how Jaa sees himself as a cultural ambassador for his home country.
“Thailand is a Buddhist country and we try to bring spirituality to everything we do,” he says through an interpreter during a recent phone interview. “So there needs to be a spiritual aspect to my movies and that this is reflected in the movies’ themes. Hopefully this allows more people to learn more about Buddhism.”
In Ong-Bak, Jaa portrayed a man from a simple Thai village who journeys to Bangkok to retrieve the head of the village’s Buddha statue which was stolen by gangsters. The Protector’s plot is similar, with Jaa playing a young man who journey’s from a remote Thai village to Australia to retrieve two elephants that were stolen from his family. The plot does allow Jaa to present an aspect of Thai history- the band of warriors known as the Jaturungkabart, soldiers sworn to protect the royal elephant being ridden into battle by the Thai King.
Jaa explains that elephants are an important part of Thai culture. “Although elephants used to be used in war time, they are now for some religious ceremonies and parades. People attach a great deal of importance to them. For some they are like family. I have two elephants, named Flower and Leaf, who are like family.”
While Jaa gives his audiences doses of Thai culture and history, it’s the action that the gets them into the theater. Although the film is chock full of fights and chases, including one between Jaa and a gang of extreme skateboarders and trick bicycle riders, the action centerpiece to The Protector is a four minute long continuous shot in which Jaa battles his way past numerous opponents up four levels of a restaurant. It’s a sequence that took a month to prepare and two weeks to capture.
“It took eight takes and you could only do two a day because of the preparation,” Jaa states. “Everything had to be choreographed just right, because the camera only held four minutes of film. We would start the scene and I would work my way up but something or someone wouldn’t be where they should and we would have to start over. Sometimes we would get almost to the end of the scene and the film would run out of the camera. We originally had a white camera operator but he wasn’t fit enough to keep up with the scene so we used a Thai one instead.”
And what of those rumors linking to Jaa to upcoming Hollywood far such as Die Hard 4 and Rush Hour 3? While he acknowledges that he would eventually like to work in a big budget Hollywood film, it is not in the cards just yet.
“Right now I am working on a few projects, including a sequel to Ong-Bak which I will be directing,” Jaa reveals. “But nothing in Hollywood right now. However, if a movie would come along with a good script, I would certainly be interested.”