Thai films get in on the action


BANGKOK, Thailand -- He has played the lead role in just two movies so far in his young career, but Panom Yeerum -- or Tony Jaa, as international audiences know him -- has quickly become Thailand's biggest movie star and may be one of the world's biggest martial arts stars of his day. While it would be premature to group Jaa in the same category as his idols Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, at the rate he is going, some believe he could someday earn a place alongside these greats.

Jean-Claude Van Damme's 1989 movie, "Kickboxer," was the first movie to bring muay thai (Thai kickboxing) to a global audience, but it has only been recently that Thai stars have started to break out and gain recognition on the silver screen for their proficiency in Thailand's national sport.

Jaa's deft fighting style and breathtaking stunts has helped establish the Thai action genre on the worldwide cinematic map. His first film, "Ong Bak," made in 2003 and distributed by Magnolia Pictures, exposed audiences to his natural charisma and gravity-defying leaps without the use of wires. The film also contrasts Thailand's countryside with the gritty streets of Bangkok, as Jaa's character seeks a Buddha statue that has been stolen from his village.

"I remember seeing ('Ong Bak') for the first time with (Magnolia) president Eamon Bowles and we literally stood up in the middle of the movie and high-fived each other," recalls Tom Quinn, head of acquisitions for Magnolia. "It brought out the 14-year-old in both of us."

"We walked out and immediately made an offer," he says. "I'm not comparing Tony to Bruce Lee, but if you had the opportunity to buy Bruce Lee's first movie, wouldn't you do everything in your power to do it?"

Quinn and Magnolia brought Jaa to the U.S. for a promotional tour where he charmed and wowed crowds with his live stunts at a variety of venues, including an NBA game during halftime. "Ong Bak" eventually grossed $4.5 million at the U.S. boxoffice and, according to Box Office Mojo, more than $15 million worldwide -- before DVD sales.

Jaa's next movie, "Tom Yum Goong" (named after the red-hot Thai soup), caused a big stir in Thailand during its 2005 release, and it found Jaa again on a mission to reclaim something taken away from his home. This time it was a poached elephant, the beloved national symbol of Thailand.

"Thai action cinema has developed its own unique identity," says Bey Logan, vp Asian acquisitions and co-production for the Weinstein Co., the U.S. distributor for "Tom Yum Goong." "The films feature not only extravagant physical stunt sequences but also distinctive aspects of Thai culture"

TWC renamed the film "The Protector" when it came out in U.S. cinemas in September. To boost its appeal for the U.S. audience, the soundtrack was scored by RZA of the popular hip-hop group the Wu-Tang Clan, known for their love of martial arts movies. "The Protector" was also "presented" by Quentin Tarantino as the first title on TWC's new Dragon Dynasty label, which showcases new and classic Asian action movies.

"The Protector" grossed $12 million at the U.S. boxoffice on 1,971 screens and has enjoyed strong DVD sales since its Jan. 16 release. According to TWC, almost half a million units were sold during its first two weeks (137,421 of them on the first day).

Following Jaa's lead is Dan Chupong, whose first movie, "Born to Fight," made in 2004, will be released on DVD by TWC this spring. "Kon Fai Bin," Chupong's second movie -- and his first as the main star -- combines elements of horror, humor and sorcery. It was released in December in Thailand, and Magnolia will distribute it in the U.S. this summer as "Dynamite Warrior."

Quinn prebought "Dynamite Warrior" having only seen the trailer. But because Chupong's abilities made such a big impression on him in "Born to Fight," he jumped on "Dynamite," following the logic Quinn used when he bought the distribution rights to "Ong Bak," Jaa's first movie in a leading role.

Meanwhile, Jaa is working on "Ong Bak 2," in which he will star and make his directorial debut. Despite the title, it is not a sequel. Instead, it draws on themes found in the first movie, according to Gilbert Lim, executive vp of Sahamongkol Film, the Thai production house behind "Ong Bak" and "Ong Bak 2."

"There's so much interest in this next movie and it's not even half done," Lim says.

"When we used to think about action films from Asia, the first thing that came to mind was Hong Kong," he says. "Ever since 'Ong Bak,' people are looking toward the next place for good action films, and that's Thailand."