By: Matthew J.R. Kohler
Ten years ago, Tony Jaa was one of the biggest names in martial arts. For a while, Jaa was on top of the world. Not only was he getting compared to Bruce Lee, but also he was the first martial arts star outside of China. Although he had everything in place, the fame wore off shortly afterwards. If you are trying to break into this genre, look at his career as an example of what not to do.
If we are talking talent, Jaa has it as a martial artist. My first experience with him was in The Protector. One of the most influential fight scenes was the one-shot fight in the restaurant. Impressive as it is, the movie had many other fights that showed off Jaa’s skills. As a martial artist myself, I don’t know how he did some of those moves. In fact, I can’t believe the man didn’t get injured. Apparently, Jaa could do no wrong.
Before Jaa did The Protector (a worldwide release), he did his biggest movie, titled Ong Bak: Muy Thai Warrior. I personally liked The Protector more, but the scene where he bursts through fire with a running knee was classic. With this film, Jaa primed himself to be the next biggest action star. That is until he himself ruined that.
My biggest complaint with him in his films is that he’s not a character. What do I mean by “character”? If you look at the big five (Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, and Sammo Hung), they all have distinct personalities onscreen. In all of Jaa’s films, he is just the guy that can flip around and swing a crazy knee. Even though martial arts movies are about the action, we also want to see someone who’s relatable to us.
He also never developed characters in his movies. In The Protector, the entire movie is of him never speaking and running around beating people up. Sure, you could say, “All I want is action!”. But wouldn’t you miss the great wisdom Lee brings to the table in Enter the Dragon? Or Jackie Chan’s humor in Police Story? Tony Jaa was more emotionless than Arnold in Terminator. Even though Jaa’s flaws were shown in these movies, I was willing to give him a break. After all, they were only his first couple of films.
Tony Jaa knew how to destroy opponents, but never knew how to tell a story through a fight scene. Where there’s a story there is also tension and anticipation, which (ideally) make the finale much more exciting. Look at The Protector’s final battle. It’s ten minutes long (after six other fights), and it stays well past its welcome. Jaa beats up the big dude, then he has to fight him with Elephant bones, and finally cuts off his tendons. But, like I said, the movie had so much action-packed excitement that such blemishes were excused.
After 2006, Jaa disappeared from the scene until he returned to do Ong Bak 2 in 2009. In another article I talked about martial art sequels being the death of a career; this movie is the best example. Ong Bak 2 and 3 were disasters. They brought nothing fresh to the series. Jaa directed these movies too, which did not help matters. The difference between him and Bruce Lee is Jaa is a martial artist, while Lee is an artist. Sadly, the failures of these two films were only the beginning.
Jaa later did many other sequels, such as The Protector 2, Killzone 2, Furious 7, and now XXX 3. Protector 2 was a joke, and all of the others either show him as a background character or were a flop. A certain fight in Protector 2 blew my mind on how stupid it was. Tony Jaa sets his shoes on fire and has a slow-motion fight with fire (which is obviously CG, by the way). The fight is so poorly choreographed that it’s laughable. And once again, Jaa hardly acts in the film.
I hope people will remember Tony Jaa for what he did in the early to mid-2000s. Was it as impactful as the big five? No, but he made two excellent films. If he could have had an Ang Lee or John Woo direct him, I think Jaa’s path as an actor would have been far more impactful than two cult classics. When looking back, Jaa was a perfect example of someone with amazing skill, but not an amazing personality. We as an audience remember the action of an action star, but we also remember the character. That is why the greats have survived for decades. On the bright side, Jaa is only 40, so he has plenty of time to break through. By comparison, Donnie Yen was 45 when he broke through with Ip Man.