As mixed reviews of the Vin Diesel vehicle xXx: The Return of Xander Cage pour in, moviegoers around the world face a burning question: Whatever happened to Tony Jaa?
Jaa, the Thai martial artist who achieved international fame with 2003’s Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior, has a small role in Xander Cage, playing one of an elite team of bad guys who steal the movie’s MacGuffin. Watching Jaa play seventh fiddle to the charisma-less Diesel and a host of other international movie stars and athletes reminds us: Jaa hasn’t been the lead in a movie since 2013’s disappointing The Protector 2 (originally titled Tom Yum Goong 2); everything since then has been either cameos or supporting roles. It’s not surprising to see Jaa play a minion in Xander Cage, but it does make you wonder why the man cannot catch a break.
It’s not that his skills have diminished: Jaa is still the most charismatic contemporary martial-artist star out there. For proof, just watch this scene from 2010’s Ong-Bak 3, the unfairly maligned sequel that derailed Jaa’s career.
What makes this scene so viscerally thrilling is Jaa’s total physical commitment. He’s so beaten and outmaneuvered that you really can’t tell how much longer his body will hold out. You can see his muscles aching as his body lists, making it impossible to know which way the fight will go. Sure, there are other modern action heroes out there who can do great stunt work, like Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White. But none of them have the screen presence that Jaa brings; none of them make every blow sting like he does. By all rights, he should be a major star on the level of Xander Cage co-star Donnie Yen. Where did it all go wrong?
For answers, we have go back to 2008, when Jaa ran out of money while shooting Ong-Bak 2, a box-office flop that had to be split in two because of major behind-the-scenes production difficulties. Jaa suffered a very public breakdown during the making of the movie, and he was so intensely unhappy during filming that he briefly disappeared from the set for two whole months, and briefly retreated to a Buddhist monastery in Surin, Thailand. As ScreenAnarchy’s Todd Brown put it:
First Jaa appeared on TV, weeping and vowing to complete the film. Then he publicly issued a set of demands to production house Sahamongkol, threatening to disappear again if they were not met. Among the demands were the insistence that he be released from the long term, exclusive contract that he signed with the production house. Shortly after this Jaa was whisked away in a car full of Sahamongkol ‘heavies’ prompting speculation that he had been kidnapped. Not true, Jaa said when he reappeared, but whatever happened was unsettling enough to him that he took refuge in a police station, where he later met with Sahamongkol boss Sia Jiang. That meeting resulted in Jaa’s demands being dropped, Jaa agreeing to split Ong Bak 2 into two movies to allow the company a chance to recover the cost over runs, the creation of a major new role for Sahamongkol’s other star Dan Chupong, and directorial duties for the remaining shoot were handed over to Panna Rittikrai.
The contract that Jaa wanted to be released from sounds pretty questionable. Moviepilot’s Stephen Adamson writes that one of the conditions was that Jaa was to be paid a meager $1,600 per month for a “multi-decade” exclusive contract, one that Jaa’s representatives have understandably called “illegal.” Ong-Bak 3 was consequently cobbled together from leftover Ong-Bak 2 footage, though the resulting film doesn’t feel like a hatchet job. Jaa has since worked with Sahamongkol on the disappointing The Protector 2, and then appeared in several international action films, including xXx: The Return of Xander Cage and Furious 7.
Still, you can see the difference between Jaa’s pre– and post–Ong-Bak 2 vehicles just by comparing one of The Protector 2’s action scenes with its predecessor’s famous one-take fight. In the scene above, Jaa and his opponents are surrounded by computer-generated flames that overwhelm the human elements in the scene. This sequence is a fitting metaphor: Co-star Yanin “Jeeja” Vismistananda steals Jaa’s thunder in a couple of key fight scenes in the film, making Jaa, in his last real starring role, merely one half of a buddy duo.
Compare that underwhelming set piece with this virtuosic stunt from The Protector. This sequence is not only a showcase for Jaa’s stamina, but also his charisma. Other stars would have to ramp up the brutality to hold your attention for four minutes of nonstop ass-kicking. More would get lost in a technically impressive scene that might have felt like a cut scene from a beat-’em-up video game. But Jaa holds your attention throughout. You feel his exhaustion; by the time he’s reached the top of the stairs, you feel like you’ve climbed all that way with him. He’s not just an accomplished acrobat: He’s a legit screen presence.
Since leaving Sahamongkol, even Jaa’s best performances have been regrettably small. Jaa got to put a spotlight on his humanitarian concerns as a sidekick in both 2014’s Skin Trade and 2015’s Kill Zone 2, playing white-hat policemen trying to stop human-trafficking rings. Jaa gets in some good scenes here and there, as in the above brawl between his character and White’s crooked (but well-dressed!) cop. It’s an excellent showcase for Jaa’s talent and his generosity as a sparring partner (he often takes more hits than he needs to). But ultimately, neither Skin Trade nor Kill Zone 2 give Jaa enough chances to bust loose. Which brings us back to our original question: When will Jaa get the chance to headline his own movies again?
To be fair, Jaa appears to be content just to be included in films like Xander Cage and Furious 7, possibly because of the sour note that his relationship with Sahamongkol ended on. Can you really blame the guy for taking jobs that many Asian actors, including Hong Kong actors Simon Yam and Andy Lau, refuse? Yam and Lau both lament that there aren’t more diverse roles available for them in Hollywood, but that doesn’t make Jaa’s decision to co-star as heavies and sidekicks a bad one.
Realistically, Jaa needs somebody to do for him what directors like John Hyams and Isaac Florentine did for Adkins in vehicles like Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning and Ninja: Shadow of a Tear. Jaa’s recent films may still show flashes of the personality and the technical skills that made him an action star, but nobody has offered him the chance to bust loose in the way that he and his Thai colleagues did in the Ong-Bak movies.
It’s not on YouTube, but if you can, watch Ong-Bak 2’s climactic dance number, where Jaa performs a traditional Thai dance for a tyrannical despot. The dance is passionate and confrontational, and it sends a clear message: I’m coming, and I won’t be ignored. We need a Tony Jaa-naissance that honors the performer in that scene. Here’s hoping that whatever Jaa is in next will give him more chances to show off that greatness.