Tony Jaa has been hailed as the new Jet Li,Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee of martial arts and for good reason- this guy is amazing! If you are tired and bored of action movies with noticeably calculated fight moves or kicks and punches that never really seem to hit the opponent, go for Tony Jaa’s films. He is one of the few martial artists that do not use any wire or computer effects for his stunts. Now while Jackie Chan does the same, Tony Jaa gives his audience some real refreshing and original moves.
He is the kind of martial artist that can do almost if not everything you ask him to. He can jump over cars and people, break through glasses and doors, and climb on walls without any wire work. And when he strikes, it really reaches his enemies – one would wonder how those stuntmen who received his knee kicks and elbow punches are still alive. That’s how good and passionate he is with martial arts.
At the early age of ten, he already showed great zeal for such sport, threatening his father who is a boxer that he would kill himself if he will not be taught Muay Thai. He wanted to become as good as the masters Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. Wasting no time to learn, he practiced their moves even while he played with friends or did household chores.
Five years later, after seeing director Panna Rittikrai’s classic action movie entitled Born to Fight, he asked for his father’s approval to pursue being the director’s student. Born to Fight gave him the confidence that for anybody who would want to be an action star, opportunities can be found in Thailand as well. So he travelled to Khon Khaen Province which is near his hometown, Surin. Starting from the bottom – from being a water boy, he patiently worked his way into the film industry. He was practicing martial arts during his breaks.
After graduating senior high at the age of 21, the director advised Jaa to study at the University of Physical Education in Sarakam Province wherein he learned various fighting skills such as taekwondo, stick and sword, bushido, ju-jitsu, and judo. He was also involved in gymnastics and was a great high jump athlete, which explains why he can do such stunts with ease. His hard work started to pay off when Rittikrai eventually saw that he was ready to enter the big screen, offering him to become part of the stunt team.
Because of his exceptional style in martial arts, combining Muay Thai with gymnastics, he was able to perform with a group in several high schools in the northeast parts of Thailand. He also became a part of a local sword team that brought him to China as an exchange student. He gained a lot of medals in gymnastics, track and field, sword and staff.
His skills were constantly enhanced through his job as a stuntman for the local television series entitled Insee Daeng. In 1997, he reached another milestone for playing Robin Shou’s stunt double in Mortal Kombat: Annihilation. He also doubled for martial arts actor Summo Hung in his energy drink commercial, where Jaa was required to take a grip on an elephant’s tusks and somersault onto its back.
For four years Rittikrai and Jaa studied Muay Boran, a form of martial art which stemmed from Muay Thai, with a plan of making a film showcasing the art. With Mark Harris’ help, they were able to produce a short film revealing Jaa’s outstanding skills. This demo led to Jaa’s big break, when director Prachya Pinkaew saw it and offered the stuntman to star in the film Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior (2003). This was where he was first introduced in the industry as Tony Jaa by Pinkaew. From his real name Japanom Yeerum, Jaa is his nickname and the “T” in Tony stands for Thailand.
The five feet nine inches actor gained a quite a few injuries during the making of this film: a sprained ankle and ligament injury. He also got burned while doing a fight scene with another actor with his pants on fire. In an interview he shared, “I really had to concentrate because once my pants were on fire the flames spread upwards very fast and burnt my eyebrows, my eyelashes and my nose. Then we had to do a couple more takes to get it right.”
It was all worth it, for sure, as Ong-Bak was a great success in Thailand which made the highly respected French action producer Luc Besson release it internationally. This film alone was enough for Jaa to be labelled as the next Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee by critics in Bangkok and Hollywood as well. And as a result of its success, Ong-Bak 2: The Beginning (2006) was made and even Ong-Bak 3: The Battle to End All Battles (2010).
Tom-Yum-Goong (2005) was his second major movie wherein he showcased Muay Cochisai – a form of Muay Thai he developed imitating an elephant’s moves. In August 2006, he went to New York for its US release with the title The Protector. This film also has a sequel which was released in 2013.
He has had some terminated projects as well such as Daab Atamas (Sword) which was supposed to be his third movie and the third instalment of the film series King Naresuan that was cancelled where he was given a small role. Another good opportunity somewhat wasted was the offer from Jackie Chan himself for Rush Hour 3. Chan asked its director to include Jaa in the cast, and he was quoted in an Associate Press interview saying “I gave the director videos of Tony Jaa because I think Tony Jaa is the most well-rounded of all action stars.” However Jaa said that he would not be able to participate as he was filming Ong-Bak 2.
It is apparent that Tony Jaa wants not only to establish his own name in the industry – he also wants to bring his country along with his success. One can tell that it is important for him to lift the name of Thailand up when he said “I want a strong foundation in Thailand. Hollywood? Maybe in the future.”
On May 28, 2010 he took a break from acting to become a Buddhist monk in Surin which is about 200 kilometers northeast of Bangkok. He surprised his fans with his comeback with a deal with Sahamongkol Film Company for Tom-Yum-Goong 2. Then in August 2013 he started to expand his horizon, entering Hollywood, by signing up for a role in Fast & Furious 7 which is now said to be released in 2015. He is also looking to work with Dolph Lundgren in A Man Will Rise which is reported to come out this year (2014) and Skin Trade next year.
Tony Jaa has made it to the top as his idols Jackie Chan and Jet Li in terms of skills, though he has yet to make quite a few more projects to really establish his name not only in Thailand but in the whole world, too. But that wouldn’t be too difficult for him. His great patience and passion, and his 14-year experience as a stuntman all brought him here to this point of inevitable success as a martial arts star. He had a clear goal which resulted in his incredibly unique style that captured the attention of a lot of filmmakers. He even shared, ”Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee, and Jet Li are my masters; they’re the inspiration for my work. Bruce Lee was a heavy fighter who threw hard punches. Jackie moves very fast and uses a lot of comedy, and Jet Li is very fluid. I’ve tried to combine all of their styles and added some things of my own.” Indeed, Bruce Lee would be proud if he could see Tony today.
The martial artist, stuntman, actor, physical educator, and director can be considered one of the most passionate people with regard to martial arts. He practiced – and still does – 8 hours a day, including other sports training. It’s as if the only time he doesn’t practice his fighting films is when he is sleeping. He’s a monster when it comes to martial arts, though there was no record of him entering into a formal competition. Nevertheless, he inspires a lot of fans to become a fighter as well. He invigorates people’s passion in martial arts. And if you don’t have it, you’ll soon acquire it once you watch his films.
Tony Jaa was born Panom Worawit on February 5, 1976 and is actually of Cambodian descent. His parents were elephant herders, and he himself has two pet elephants. Jaa has three siblings – two girls and a boy. He is now a husband to his longtime girlfriend Piyarat Chotiwattananont (officially registered December 29, 2011), and a father to one.
One of his lesser known achievements is holding the record of conducting the biggest Muay Thai training with a thousand people participating in Hong Kong, July 2005. His other movies include Battle Warrior, Spirited Killer, and Hard Gun. He can also be seen in The Bodyguard (1 and 2).