WASHINGTON -- One film into his career, and Thai actor Tony Jaa is being compared to Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li. That's heady company for an actor looking to specialize in martial-arts films, but Jaa isn't quite ready to embrace the hype.
"In terms of replacing Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Jet Li, I would never consider that," Jaa says through an interpreter. "They are my mentors, and my masters."
But if Jaa isn't ready to proclaim himself the new martial arts superstar, plenty of other people are. Fan Web sites have been abuzz about his film, Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, since it was released in Asia and Europe two years ago; at the 2003 Toronto Film Festival, audience members were so adrenalized by the movie, according to The New York Times, that they didn't want to leave the theater.
Last week, Time magazine jumped on the bandwagon, with film critic Richard Corliss proclaiming that the martial-arts genre "needs another hero, and Jaa is the fellow to fill the void."
In person, Jaa appears not menacing, but rather thoughtful and consistently self-effacing. ("To be humble and to have humility is part of being a Thai person," he says.) Dressed casually in a well-worn black leather jacket, white shirt and blue jeans, he steers the conversation away from himself and toward the discipline he loves.
Jaa sees himself not as a movie star (though he's wanted to be one since he was a kid), or even as an acknowledged expert in the martial art of Muay Thai, a combination of kung-fu and street brawling. Rather, he sees himself as an emissary for both the Thai film industry and his chosen discipline.
Training for years
If Ong-Bak -- in which his mission is to bring back a stolen Buddha the inhabitants of his remote village believe protects them -- helps him spread the word, then he will have chosen his profession well.
"I wanted to make movies first, mainly to show people the beauty of martial arts," says Jaa, 28. "I wanted to be able to show Muay Thai as an art, not just a sport. ... To have it be successful in Thailand was my goal. To have it be successful in Asia and Europe, and now here, makes me very proud."
Born in the rural province of Surin in northeastern Thailand, Jaa (given name Phanom Yeerum) is the third of four children. His parents were subsistence farmers, raising enough food for themselves and their family. The movies offered him a chance for escape.
"I've loved the martial arts since I was a kid," he says, "and I would love to go watch martial arts movies. ... I would travel 10 kilometers just to watch a film."
At age 10, he began learning the basics of Muay Thai from his father. Over the years, he learned from various masters and attended schools around the country, perfecting his skills and heightening his resolve to spread the word.
Ong-Bak proves the worth of all those labors; Jaa's character, Ting, is a martial-arts master unlike any the screen has seen before.
Though, in true martial arts tradition, he is reluctant to use his fighting skills on others, when attacked, he turns into a dervish of pent-up fury that comes pouring out in every blow, whether they come courtesy of his feet, arms, hands, legs, even elbows. One of Ting's favorite moves involves flying at one of his attackers, using his elbows and forearms to land a haymaker that would do Hulk Hogan proud.
Bows to masters
His preparation for Ong-Bak, Jaa says matter-of-factly, took nearly eight years, during which he studied, practiced, competed and put on exhibitions.
"It was something that I had dreamt of," he says, "to get Thai people to come back to their roots and learn about Muay Thai more, to learn about it as a sport. I think I succeeded."
And yet, Jaa clearly enjoys being a movie star. He's obviously studied those who came before him; he does dead-on impersonations of their facial expressions and hand gestures when talking about his influences.
"From Bruce Lee, I get his steeliness," Jaa says. "From Jackie Chan, I get his moves, his agility. From Jet Li, I get his swiftness and grace. I combine these things with my Muay Thai skills and put them to work."
Although its makers promise that no camera tricks or special effects were used to make it, some of the moves that Ong-Bak preserves on film are hard to believe, as when Jaa's character runs through an alley and escapes some would-be captors by running atop their heads and shoulders. Or when, pants literally ablaze, he attacks another would-be captor.
"I was worried," he admits of the fire scene, "but it went well. I was more concentrated and focused on aiming at the target where I was supposed to hit my knee. What happened was, we were waiting for the camera to speed up, and my eyelashes got burnt. It kind of smelled."