Tony Jaa broke out with the 2003 action movie Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, and he’s grown to be one of the biggest martial arts stars in movies today.
Martial artist Tony Jaa became a global success following his groundbreaking debut headlining Ong Bak — but what happened to the actor, who seemed poised to become a superstar? Jaa has had a fascinating career, and it’s taken a few turns along the way. A native of Thailand, Jaa began practicing Muay Thai as a child and later became an apprentice of the late stuntman and filmmaker Panna Rittikrai. Jaa went on to work as a stuntman himself, but he became a national icon seemingly overnight with the release of 2003’s Ong Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, which drew comparisons to the early films of Jackie Chan with it incredible stunt work and action scenes.
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Jaa upped the ante two years later with Tom Yum Goong (released with the English title of The Protector), and by that point, he’d become just about the biggest name in martial arts films. He was ready to blow the lid off once more with the period epic Ong Bak 2, which Jaa also directed. Unfortunately, the film encountered extreme production difficulties, which also took quite a toll on Jaa himself. Rittikrai would step in to help complete the movie, which ended up being split into two parts, with Ong Bak 2: The Beginning being released in 2008, and Ong Bak 3 following in 2010.
Jaa subsequently stepped away from movies for a time to become a Buddhist monk. He later returned to the film industry with 2013’s Tom Yum Goong 2 opposite RZA and Marrese Crump, the latter of whom was also an apprentice of Rittikrai’s. With a lot of history regarding the pained process of the second and third Ong Bak films, Jaa’s career has since shifted to Hollywood and Hong Kong, where he’s continued making some incredible action movies.
2015 especially was the year of Tony Jaa. First seen as the villainous henchman Kiet opposite the late Paul Walker in Furious 7, Jaa also appeared alongside Dolph Lundgren and Michael Jai White in the human trafficking-centered action film Skin Trade, which was also co-written by Lundgren. Jaa would also make his Hong Kong debut in SPL 2: A Time For Consequences (aka Kill Zone 2), which became one of Jaa’s best movies to date.
Since then, Jaa has been a regular fixture Hollywood and Hong Kong/Chinese movies, popping up in action films like xXx: Return of Xander Cage, Paradox (third movie in the SPL series), and the short film Gong Shou Dao, and even making a cameo as himself in Michael Jai White’s Never Back Down: No Surrender. Jaa also joined the Ip Man franchise with the 2019 spin-off Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, and was seen in The Expendables-esque ensemble Triple Threat the same year. Jaa continued to bring his magic to action movies in 2020, appearing in the sci-fi movie Jiu Jitsu alongside a big cast of martial artists and the video game movie Monster Hunter alongside Milla Jovovich.
Jaa will next be seen in the Hong Kong movie Detective Chinatown 3, and he’s also reportedly attached The Expendables: A Christmas Story. Though Jaa hit a rough patch in his career with the latter two Ong Bak films, he’s come back to action movies with a vengeance. He’s achieved the kind of action movie prestige outside of Thailand that millions had been cheering for after the first Ong Bak and has been in numerous fantastic martial arts films, frequently in the company of other major or rising stars. The future of Tony Jaa as an action star is a very bright one, and he’s clearly ready to keep blowing audiences expectations out of the water.
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