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With three blockbusters behind him , Tony Jaa : On December 12th , 2008
How long is the shelf life of a kung fu hero? Besides Bruce Lee, it can be pretty long. Jackie Chan has been around for four decades, though we have to take into account the fact that Hong Kong produced scores of martial arts pictures each year from the 1960s to the '90s, then Chan managed to crossover to the US. Jet Li, formerly known around here as Li Lianjie, has sent his fists and feet flying since his 1982 cinematic debut. He, too, postponed his expiry date by transcending cultural borders and becoming a Stateside celebrity. Still, a few years back the dynamo vowed to have washed his hands off kung fu flicks - he'd only do "action movies", but nothing more along the lines of Shaolin Temple or Hero.
Chan also displays range; lately he's been more of a comic character than a stuntmaster. Humour amplifies - even alters - his appeal. Li, meanwhile, has shown a potential for drama in films like The Warlords. He knows he has to diversify. Above all, the long shelf life of these two stars is possible because they're Chinese, and their films always have a China-size audience base, in the Mainland itself as well as in Chinatowns across the world.
So, how long can our genius warrior keep kicking? Panom "Tony Jaa" Yeerum is, as usual, an explosive spectacle in Ong-Bak 2, the movie he both stars in and directs (along with his mentor Panna Rittikrai). Nothing beats watching Jaa beating up a horde of thugs; his fang-baring violence, his exhibition of balletic brutality, is almost a substitute for the suppressed anger we all felt during the past few weeks. Ong-Bak 2 has performed an effortless somersault to become the highest grossing Thai film of 2008 after one week in the multiplexes. The film has raked in 100 million baht; the studio is now gunning for the 200-million-baht landmark that Jaa's previous, much criticised outing Tom-Yum-Goong almost achieved.
It may seem overbearing to start worrying about Jaa's future now. He's just 32 and only been in three movies, all commercially successful, and judging from the cliffhanging climax of O-B 2, we will definitely see O-B 3. Beyond that, it's rather depressing to imagine O-B 4, 5, 6 and who knows, 12 or 33, perhaps like, well, the never-ending adventures of Freddy Kruger. Jaa has also attempted diversification in O-B 2 by studying and showing off his newly acquired skills in samurai swordfighting, drunken kung fu, crocodile wrestling, and most memorably, his mellifluous duel on an elephant's back with an assassin (played by Chupong "Diew" Changprung).
Jaa's vigour and eloquence in various martial arts, his photogenic brawn and sinewy gymnasticism - all confirm that we're witnessing an exceptional talent at work. And when he does his graceful, devastating version of muay thai, we're even looking at a national artist in the making.
That's why we should be concerned about Jaa's career in the movies. Time moves faster now than it did in the 1970s and '80s, when action heroes could ride on mainstream popularity almost forever. Now you can always watch Jaa's performance on demand on YouTube - not just from his movies, but from his appearances on TV shows, international film premiers, and even his rehearsals. The inundation of his image will certainly affect his shelf life; novelty has become a rare commodity.
Unlike Jackie Chan, Jaa is unlikely to feel snug as a clown. Chan is impishly playful even in his most thrilling chase scenes, but Jaa is an intense artist, a Van Gogh, who takes his art seriously as an integral part of his life (maybe that explains the scandal when Jaa walked away from the set of Ong-Bak 2 to meditate in the jungle, claiming that he was in search of a vision for the movie). While Chan, in his lengthy career, gradually became more and more a children-friendly bozo/fighter, it would be an impossible stretch of imagination to think of Jaa in that light. In the two Ong-Bak movies and Tom-Yum-Goong, the comic distraction came from his sidekick, the TV jester Mum Jokmok. Jaa was always too busy beating those goons to pulp.
The sombreness of Jaa's personality may help him become a dramatic actor. In Ong-Bak 2, he plays an orphaned boy who discovers the truth about his parents' deaths. There are scenes in which he has to act with this face - his eyes - instead of his fists; the final revelation near the end of the movie is meant to crush the soul of Jaa's character, and the actor is quite competent in expressing it; he looks scared, and that's a good sign. The episode gives Jaa's acting a certain depth, though whether it's enough is doubtful, at least to this viewer. The bottom line is, audiences from Bangkok to Tokyo to Brooklyn are just waiting for Jaa to shrug off the melancholy of his dead parents and start kicking butts and twisting limbs. We don't want to see his depth, we want to see him brawl - we're complicit in limiting and reducing Jaa to a fighting machine.
Ong-Bak 2 comes across as different from the original Ong-Bak because the new film feels calculated. In the 2003 movie, Jaa was an unknown country lad who did amazing things with the taken-for-granted muay thai moves; in the sequel he has turned into a star bearing the huge burden of fame and expectation. The first Ong-Bak was authentic and spontaneous, it had the homespun feel of a Third World picture in which no actors had life insurance. The new film has the ambition of an epic - it has taken up a Hollywood mindset - whereas its jungle tribalism is almost hilarious. In short, he has to try harder to awe his fans, and that effort will become more and more obvious.
There are rumours about Jaa upping his level by working with foreign productions, but nothing seems concrete. At least it will have to be after Ong-Bak 3. In the meantime, we're grateful to be immensely entertained by Jaa's lethal athleticism. One way, Jaa and his co-conspirators will have to think hard to find a way to extend his shelf life, definitely for our benefit, but mostly for his own.
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