Tony Jaa has shaken up the martial arts movie industry. In 2003’s Ong-Bak, the action phenom glamorized muay Thai on-screen and unleashed unbelievably real stunts that hadn’t been seen since Jackie Chan did them in the 1980s. He upped the ante in 2005 with Tom Yum Goong, released stateside a year later as The Protector. It featured more dangerous stunts, bigger fights and a rogue’s gallery culled from the globe’s best up-and-coming stunt actors, including former U.S. wushu team member Johnny Tri Nguyen.
Now, with fans calling Tony Jaa the heir apparent to Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Bruce Lee, distribution company BCI has decided to repackage a 1994 Thai movie as Spirited Killer and give Tony Jaa co-star billing on the DVD cover. The problem is that it’s not a Tony Jaa movie. He does appear in it, but it’s not his movie—unless you consider a six-minute role a co-starring turn.
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Tony Jaa doesn’t appear in the movie until the 40-minute mark, and only then as part of a team of relic hunters who are ambushed by a coldblooded killer controlled by a voodoo doctor. This spirited killer (played by Panna Rittikrai, the co-director and Tony Jaa’s stunt mentor) wipes out most of the team, then has a fantastic throwdown with Tony Jaa’s character. The brawl shows that Tony Jaa’s unique moves were emerging even 10 years before Ong-Bak. While Rittikrai’s choreography simply replicates Hong Kong action flicks, Tony Jaa takes their fight beyond imitation. He infuses their short battle with a few taekwondo aerials and his own brand of gymnastics—the kind of kinetics not seen in other parts of the film.
In the 79 minutes Tony Jaa isn’t in the movie, Panna Rittikrai simply lifts moves from Jackie Chan’s intricate street fights, plagiarizes Jet Li’s graceful wushu and even steals Bruce Lee’s nunchaku-versus-sword choreography. Panna Rittikrai may be competent, but he’s not particularly original. Sure, he taught Tony Jaa action moviemaking, but 10 years later it’s clear that the student has surpassed the master.
Although Spirited Killer’s DVD cover misleadingly gives Jaa co-star billing, don’t write it off just yet. BCI has issued a glossy two-disc set, the first of which contains the feature film, which unfortunately hasn’t been remastered or color corrected. The second, however, contains six featurettes, two of which will please Tony Jaa fans.
Your jaw will drop as you watch Tony Takes Manhattan. On the surface, it’s nothing more than a fan’s shaky camcorder footage of Ong-Bak’s New York City premiere, an insider’s glimpse of the event at which Wu-Tang rapper RZA introduces Tony Jaa to the audience after the screening. Tony Jaa then blows everyone away by demonstrating his high-flying kicks, amazing stunt work and nearly full-contact fight choreography before the bulging eyes and roaring cheers of the assembled. After watching this footage, you’ll never again suspect Tony Jaa of using wires to get the job done.
Another behind-the-scenes featurette, Tony Jaa: Thailand’s Favorite Son, contains higher-quality digital footage of Tony Jaa at some sort of religious ceremony. Or is it a movie premiere? Maybe a charity event? No viewer can truly know unless he understands Thai because this documentary contains no introductions or subtitles to explain why Tony Jaa is praying with monks, signing autographs and riding an elephant while fans and the press take photos. Still, it’s fascinating to see him treated like royalty in his homeland.
Ultimately, if you’re expecting Spirited Killer to be another Ong-Bak, you’ll have better luck surviving one of Tony Jaa’s flying knees.