Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Tony Jaa Edition - The Part-Time Critic

Monday, June 15, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Tony Jaa Edition

*Last Updated: 6/19/2022   

There isn't a single cinematic martial artist that could reach the overall athletic peaks that Tony Jaa did between 2003 and 2005. As a life-long Jackie Chan admirer and fan, it pains me to admit this: Tony Jaa had the greatest athletic ceiling of any cinematic martial artist.  In his two breakthrough productions, Ong Bak  and The Protector, Jaa set the action world on notice and displayed a combination of skills never seen before (or since) in any fighter captured on film. Unfortunately, as Jaa worked on his follow-up film Ong Bak 2, something broke in him. The troubled production process, which I will detail a bit more later, ended up changing his career trajectory forever. Despite the unprecedented potential and skill ceiling displayed in his early films, Jaa would rarely again be the sole highlight of films, and even then, would only show flashes of the previous potential. So what happened?

Tony Jaa made his breakthrough in the 2003 (released in the US in 2005) film Ong-Bak: The Tai Warrior. For fans of fighting films, this film made everyone take notice of Tony Jaa. His follow-up film, 2005's The Protector, continued to showcase and highlight that Jaa was the real deal. Even stars like Jackie Chan took notice - he wanted Jaa for a main part in Rush Hour 3. So what made him so unique? First, he was fighting primarily in a style based heavily on Muy Thai, which had not really been the fighting style of any leading martial artist at the time, though it had recieved some decent film treatments. In the same way Seagal made the throws and re-directions of Aikido the base of his fight style, Jaa has done the same for the knee and elbow strikes of Muy Thai.
Jaa's Muy Thai was different though, it looked like a traditional fighting style, but he found ways to make it uniquely cinematic by highlighting impressive elbow and knee strikes never really seen before. These strikes demonstrated the second major feature of Jaa's work, impact. Tony Jaa's fights look absolutely brutal. This is certainly due to his skill, but also due to the commitment from his stunt team to allow for such hard strikes. I haven't seen such a commitment to brutal fight intensity on camera since Jackie Chan's Hong Kong stunt crews in the 1980's. Third, Jaa's athleticism is highlighted in these films in ways that no other martial artist has come close to. Imagine the flexibility of Jean-Claude Van Damme, the body control of Jackie Chan ,and the commitment to technique of Jet Li combined into one and you have an idea of the unique creature that burst on the scene in 2003.

Finally, the last ingredient that made Jaa stand out is his confidence. Watching these two breakout films, you can tell that Jaa and his director Pinkaew are desperate to make their mark; they are clearly giving it all they had. Jaa’s best fight sequences are often not back and forth affairs, but more like sizzle reels of athletic highlights that are often instantly replayed because of how unique they were at the time. Put all of these ingredients together and the result is something wholly unique to the other great martial arts superstars. Tony Jaa is an action star that when he was at the top of his game, could not only stand among the greats, but he stood out from the greats. I'm excited for you guys to watch his best action sequences and marvel at what he was able to accomplish.
Jaa's unique ceiling is what made his fall from the heights so bewildering and unfortunate. After 2005's The Protector, Tony Jaa felt like he was capable of anything. For the follow-up to that landmark film, Jaa chose to direct and star in a loosely based prequel to Ong-Bak. He seems to have decided to choose to not work with his mentor/director Prachya Pinkaew, who was instrumental in his first two films. It seems clear to me that this was Jaa's attempt at making his own masterpiece. Jackie Chan was great, but it was when he took the reins of his own career and directed his own work to make his own statements in films like Project A and Police Story that the world really took notice of his abilities. I believe Jaa saw Ong Bak 2 as his chance to one-up the entire martial arts world on his own merits. It seems Jaa was trying to do it all here in this film – he tried to tell a historical epic, raise production values/costumes to unprecedented heights for Thai action, and showcase himself doing every kind of major martial art style and using nearly every major martial arts weapon. 

It's not fully clear what happened on the set of Ong Bak 2 (financing issues and quality pressures are a key player), but there are massive production issues and Jaa left the set completely for two months. Some reports said he joined a Buddhist temple as a monk. Eventually, his previous director was brought in to help complete the film. For whatever the reason, this experience seems to mark the moment that Jaa’s career could never recover from. To an outsider like me, it seems that his desire to get away from the strong guiding hand of Pinkaew and direct his own work caused a lot of problems with productions and most importantly with financiers (This article does a decent job of trying to explain the situation). The thing is, he nearly pulled it off. The story is horrible, but the vision Jaa showed in Ong Bak 2 is incredible and the execution (particularly of the final scene) is a top-notch. If he was just able to channel that vision into a tighter, more focused and story-driven set pieces, he could have pulled off a masterpiece. Jaa's run of Ong Bak, The Protector, and Ong Bak 2 showcases skills and sequences that easily put him in the upper pantheon of action star legends. 

After 2008, Jaa is never really the star of his own movies (Protector 2 exempted) again. By the time Jaa shows up in the contractually obligated Protector 2, the fights don't feel as exciting and he’s now being overshadowed by the fight crew heading up films like The Raid. Thankfully, he doesn't disappear from the scene, but becomes either a side character or a co-star from here on out.  Over the last decade, we've seen him fight a slew of who’s who in Asian action cinema. There are some good fights (one great one) to be found, but nothing so energizing and action defining as the heights he reached in those first few breakout hits. Jaa got the chance to fight against or alongside an all-star list of Asian action cinema stars like RZA, JeeJa Yanin, Merrese Crump, Dolph Lundgren, Michael Jai White, Paul Walker, Donnie Yen, Wu Jing, Max Zheng, Vin Deisel, Louis Koo, Chris Collins, Iko Uwais, and Scott Adkins. He is still making films today.

Let's get to the list, shall we? I'll list here the numbers 25-11 and then provide commentary on the top ten. Keep in mind that once we get to the top ten, it is more about your individual preferences and less about objective greatness. In other words, there are so many great scenes to choose from, you can be picky about very subjective things rather than pointing out objective flaws between them. What do you think? Did I order the sequences correctly?


Top Action Sequences Rated & Ranked
*I’m not including his work from xXx: Return of Xander Cage because his work in each film amounts to a few minutes (https://youtu.be/TbAR6SzDeYI) worth of screen time stretched out over several different sequences and he’s really just a minor part of those.

GRADE: C
Mediocre sequences that lack anything that makes them stand out. Decent, but forgettable.

35. "Enlightened Jaa Beats Pillaging Soldiers" -Ong Bak 3 (2010)
- Commentary: General rule in fight films, "Never go full enlightened." Once a character achieves complete and total peace their fight styles get so boring that it neuters the following sequences - see Neo at the very end of the first Matrix movie. They literally had to "upgrade" the agents to make a second movie possible. In Ong Bak 3 Jaa essentially reaches enlightenment (while looking like Jesus) and has a slow and fairly quaint fight with a few soldiers who just finished up pillaging a village. Good for the character - bad for the action viewing audience. 

34. “Low Level Boss: Protecting the Convoy & Warehouse Threat” -The Furious 7 (2015)
- Commentary: Jaa was able to snag a small villain role in the 2015 film The Furious 7. Unfortunately, they just didn't really know what to do with him. In the two sequences he gets he is a kind of sub-boss. In the first sequence he helps protect the bus that the Furious crew are trying to snag someone from. Jaa is knocked out for most of the scene, but then is able to wake up and have at least a serviceable fight with the lead Brian (Paul Walker), before the scene is up and he has to retreat. In the finale sequence he is meant to try and stop Brian from setting up a cell tower connection. Their shootout/fight is pretty underwhelming but it has to be - you can't give Jaa six minutes or so to do a major fight and with Paul Walker's unfortunate death there probably wasn't much to work with. Jaa gets a parkour moment or two, but the actual fight is pretty basic aside from an interesting stair stunt. It's better than their first encounter, but again, it's just a low level henchmen scene.

33. Underground Fight: Jaa vs. Big Guy" -Triple Threat (2019)
- Commentary: This is a fairly short fight largely meant to establish Jaa as a strong fighter in the film. He's fighting in an underground arena and takes on a guy much bigger than him. At first the big guy absorbs his best blows, but Jaa wears him down and eventually gets a finishing elbow strike blow. We also get a nice throwback splits maneuver from Jaa here. It's good to see he's still that agile so many years after his prime. A short and forgettable fight beyond the splits.

32. "Tony Jaa vs. Mountain Witch" -Ong Bak 2 (2009)
- Commentary: A short fight that doesn't really amount to much more than a bit of hand to hand combat with a crazy woman up in the mountains who growls like a Lion. It's not bad, but it's not exactly good or memorable either.

GRADE: C+
Largely mediocre sequences that have some redeeming or standout feature. This, to me, is where the average decent action sequence ranks.

31. "Tuk Tuk Chase in the City & Highway" -Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2005)
- Commentary: This is the one action sequence from Tony Jaa's big debut that doesn't feel like it belongs. Everything else in the film knows it is game-changing, everything else is confidently directed. This chase sequence, played out on Tuk Tuk's is a bit of a mess - they are in so many different places of the city in different shots - and it feels like it once to be an action/stunt spectacle but doesn't quite know how. It never quite feels unleashed - despite the commitment to having lots of Tuk Tuks on screen and destroying many. The stunts aren't framed right, given the right context, and the film score behind it is bewildering. It's not outright bad, but it feels like a big miss relative to everything else in the film.

30. “Finale Fight: Jaa vs. the Crow” -Ong Bak 3 (2010)
- Commentary: The enlightened Jaa doesn't just rush in and take his vengeance - he has learned to slowly challenge the unworthy Demon Crow (the Gods(?) seem to agree). Enlightened Jaa fights with a mixture of his traditional style and a more formal tai chi flow. It always amuses me when tai chi is used to show a more sophisticated and mature martial art. The resultant fight is neat - but it's filmed near all at slow speed and doesn't quite pack the punch you were hoping for from a finale showdown between Jaa and a Demon Crow character. Eventually the Crow does get some licks in, but Jaa's peace is too much for him - catching a spear at one point with his praying hands (lol!). Dramatically, it's good to see some payoff; on the action front - this is fairly weak sauce.

30. "Gas Station Escape: Jaa Avoids Execution" -Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2005)
- Commentary: A short but sweet sequence that see Jaa narrowly avoid execution. After fighting off those who were to kill him, Jaa escapes and after some gunfire gets caught in a fire (they are at a gas station). Of course, it's his legs that are on fire and he uses this to his advantage, getting some spin kicks in on his opponents before jumping into a small pool of water. He takes down a couple more bad guys with some big knees and elbows to the head. This sequence feels a lot like what you'd get in a Western film with a major action star, the signature moves, a unique setting, and a major stunt (the fire), but none of that overlong action filler. Think of this sequence as "What if Jaa was edited like Chuck Norris or Steven Seagal?"

29. "Montage of Butt-Kicking Ambushes" -Ong Bak 2 (2009)
- Commentary: Most montages are quick passing things, but this montage of ambushes deserves a spot on this action list. There are three or four nice little ambushes here where Tony Jaa and his gang surprise a group on the river, by jumping out of cocoons in trees, and other methods. Not only do we get a sense of geography and scope here, but we get some hand to hand combat, sword fighting, and some work with a spear too. Leave it to Jaa to go this hard on a simple montage.

GRADE: B-
Good sequences that have some issue holding it back from being solid.

28. “Street Bike Chase on the Roof Heads to the Streets” -The Protector 2 (2014)
- Commentary: There is something off about this sequence from the beginning and it permeates most of the action sequences in this follow-up film. On one hand you will find wonderful little action beats  that remind you of classic Tony Jaa, like narrowly escaping an oncoming bike by sliding under a table or some other jaw-dropping athletic stunt. But then, you are also overwhelmed by obvious green screen work and CGI bikes over and over again. It's really difficult to balance appreciation for this sequence which does genuinely feature some good moments, but also some really garish and embarrassing moments for any professional. It looks like the decision to recreate the roof set in a studio and then vfx the cityscape (production costs?) just haunts this sequence. If this was any other star except for Jackie Chan, it wouldn't really be questioned, because both of them built their careers on the idea that the majority of what they accomplished was with as little vfx help as possible. The chase does make it down to the street eventually with an extended chase on motorbikes and Jaa hanging onto the roof of the car. Again, the mixture here of practical and CGI leaves me bewildered. 

27. “Opening: Mercenary Attack on MI6 Jungle Compound” -Triple Threat (2019)
- Commentary: More of an ensemble action sequence than a Tony Jaa feature, but it’s worth including here. A group of mercenaries with Michael Jai White, Micheal Bisping, Tiger Chen, and Tony Jaa in tow, attack an MI6 camp in the jungle to break out Collins, Scott Adkins. Iko Uwais’ character is sleeping in the camp and his loved one becomes collateral damage – giving him his revenge plot. This is fairly standard commando raid stuff, but there is one moment where Uwais and Jaa get to battle and it’s instantly recognizable as “not normal” stunt guy stuff. Their moment is so electric that it’s incredibly sad we never get a proper full on Tony Jaa vs Iko Uwais gunz blazing finale type fight. This might be the closest we get.

26. “Opening: Tortured as Prisoner but Fighting Back” -Ong Bak 3 (2010)
- Commentary: Opening the third film in the Ong Bak series and Tony is a prisoner (he actually lost that all-time great battle at the end of the second film). In a circle of guards he is being hit with sticks and punished as he is chained. For a moment, Jaa is able to get free and wrap his chains around his wrists and use them as protection against the sticks. Still chained at the heels, he gets creative and begins to fight back against the guards. There's a lot of callbacks here to his drunken fighting moveset in taking out the lower half of the guards. This is just a short establishing sequence, but it's quite amazing to note just how much Jaa is able to get out of it. It would have been interesting to see Jaa put his hat in the ring and choreograph for some other productions.

25. "Jaa & Another Guard Help Jing Wu & Uncle Escape" - Kill Zone 2 (2016)
- Commentary: Taken from the prison to a special site, Jing Wu and his Uncle are kept alive but guarded by a group of gangsters. Tony Jaa and his other good-guy prison guard friend are drawn into it, but ultimately decide to stand up and help the captives free. They bust in with a bus and fights break out amongst attempts to escape. Although there is some fight choreography here, it's largely played as background fodder to the melancholy song being played as its clear everyone has made decisions where their lives are on the line. A decent sequence played more for drama than for intense action.

24. “Finale: Tony Jaa & JeeJa Yanin vs Mareese Crump, RZA, & Goons: -The Protector 2 (2014) 
- Commentary: A large and bloated finale that has a buffet of sequences, some very good and some mediocre, for the viewer. Thhe opening fight sees Tony and JeeJa take on a Crump and his goons in a concrete area like a parking garage. This sequence feels like Jaa slipping into his best self - with multiple attackers, slick choreography, and physical stunts/fights. After a fire breaks out (incredibly poor CGI) gets some fire on his feet and fights some goons that way. It would be really cool if it weren't for the obvious and embarrassing CGI here. Once the fire is out, we get a rematch between Jaa and Crump and the scene improves drastically. Jaa gets to do much of his classic moves here and Crump takes quite a beating. They fall down together through some glass and to a subway tunnel underneath. Here Jaa takes out some more goons - giving us some big aerial knee strikes in the process. Crump shows up again for the final part of this showdown. They fight along an electrified railway (their shoes stepped in conductive water or something to allow it), but each time they strike each other they get a small electrical shock. For a moment the sound effects make it sound like a light saber battle - which is quite silly. This is typical for this film - some awesome stuff and then right after that something a bit embarrassing that doesn't quite work. The fight goes on a bit too long, with lots of green screened moments thrown in, but finally ends with an over the top elbow blow. Think its over there? Think again, RZA (who is the big baddie) throws ANOTHER goon into the fight, gets taken out quickly, and then RZA jumps into the fray. He's game, but he just doesn't have the flexibility to give a wide move range. It's mostly punch/kick type stuff here until Tony fights back with elbow strikes and they fall into some glass and down a couple flights. Did I also mention there's a whole bomb thing and a shootout happens with some others involved? It all ends with RZA & Crump (yeah, he comes back) vs. Tony, Mark, JeeJa Yanin, and the elephant. It's so ludicrous, over the top, and never ever ending that its hard to remember the good parts. A great example here that more doesn't always equal better.

23. “Michael Jai White vs. Tony Jaa” -Skin Trade (2015)
- Commentary: It begins as a quick shootout, but the gap is closed quickly between Jaa's good guy and Michael Jai White's bigger and badder guy. The fight starts with Jaa's usual kick moveset, but the tone is matched by White finding a way to stop each move before it really gets revved up. A nice touch here. The style clash is nice here with Jai White's tighter kickboxing style making a nice contrast with Jaa's more free flowing Muay Thai strikes. They fight up some stairs and make their way back to ground level. There's some nice choreography here and White hets some good looking kicks on camera, but I feel like the cinematography kinda let this fight down a bit. Rather than showcase some of the best moves, it Feel they are obscured. Too bad, could have been something better.

22. “Impromptu Street Fight: Tony Jaa vs. Max Zhang" -Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy (2019) 
- Commentary: In a reversal of their usual roles, Tony Jaa is playing the heavy and Max Zhang is playing the babyface hero in this short fight. This isn't their first showdown in the movie (that was a couple second tease near the beginning), but this is their first serious encounter - even if it is brief and leaves you wanting a heck of a lot more. What we get though is great stuff. I love that Tony gets to be the aggressor here - his moveset works so well as just an oppressive onslaught of elbows and kicks. Zhang does all he can to block or counter. After some excellent back and forth beats - Zhang finally gets the upper hand in a simple counterstrike and the fight ends. Man, this one really knows how to amp up the energy quickly and then leave you wanting just as it was getting good.

21. “Dolph Lundgren vs. Tony Jaa” -Skin Trade (2015) Link
Commentary: A very similar fight to the one with Michael Jai White in the same film - this is played as small and clever versus big and physical. Both Jaa and Lundgren are able to get some heavy hitting moves here. The reason I'd place this one a bit higher than the Jai White fight  is because I think the camerawork (while still not being great) does a better job at showcasing Jaa's unique moveset and Lundren's power. The hits just hit harder in this one.

20. “Tony Jaa fights and subdues a rowdy prisoner (Wu Jing)” -Kill Zone 2 (2016) Link
- Commentary: Whoo boy - this fight is too short and sudden to give anything more than this grade- but what it lacks in time it makes up for in punch. When a new prisoner (Wu Jing) learns he is being done a raw deal, he goes bezerk. A prison guard, played by Tony Jaa, comes to subdue him and the two have a quick and powerful fight. These guys are really going hard at each other, with quick strikes, and smart moves. Jaa ultimately gets the best of him, planting him with his signature two knee strike through a glass window pane.


GRADE: B
Good action sequences with much to commend about them. They are a solid entry into their genre.

19. “Shipyard Brawl: Jaa vs Pixie Sisters & Mareese Cump” -The Protector 2 (2014)
- Commentary: What should have been a standout sequence feels just a bit off here. There are three threads coming together in this fight, Jaa, the Pixie Sisters, and Mareese Crump and his goons. After a big of decent group group, the fight breaks down to Crump vs. Jaa dnt he Pixie girls. The girls are dealt with fairly easily and we get Jaa vs Crump. They end up having a nice back and forth, but it feels a bit restrained, a bit lacking relative to other major fights Jaa has had. This one is definitely worth watching, but it's mixed.  

18. “Palace Work: Dancing & General Assassination” -Ong Bak 2 (2009) Link
- Commentary: In order to get close to a major general he wants to assassinate, Tony Jaa impersonates a dancer in a crew there to entertain the general. Jaa's dance here is easy to overlook because it's not exactly a fight, but my goodness is it an amazing example of athleticism and coordination. Jaa flips, turns, poses, and jumps with style, grace, and power - an extremely difficult combination to pull off. The dance ends with Jaa throwing grenades/smoke bombs into the crowd and rushing the general. He takes out the guards with hidden knives and then takes out the general. To escape he takes out some more guards and throws some smoke bombs. The art direction, costume direction, musical score, and choreography come together incredibly well here to create a fantastic sequence.

17. "Attempting to Escape Thai Prison & Make a Call" -Kill Zone 2 (2016)
- Commentary: Wu Jing, an undercover cop, needs to escape prison and make a call to his uncle in the police force. Tony Jaa, an innocent prison guard is unaware of Wu Jing's situation as well as many other dirty deeds going on. Those things clash together when Wu Jing is able to get the upper hand on the guards, infiltrate the control room, and open the prisoner cells. A riot ensues with Wu Jing gaining control of a guard's cell phone. You get several interesting threads here: Wu Jing trying to fight to high ground and find cell reception, Jaa trying to fight Wu Jing so he doesn't make a call, and the guards/Warden trying to subdue the prisoners. All of these threads play out with a massive group of inmates fighting in the background. While there's some nice fight choreography going on here, the sequence is less about a real beast of an action sequence, and more about a technical triumph I admire. The scale of the fight and ability to pull the threads here in several long take sequences is quite awesome - even if the whole thing isn't quite the sum of its parts.

16. “Styles Clash: Jaa vs. Samurai, Kung Fu, & MMA” -Ong Bak 2 (2009) Link
- Commentary: Jaa's character is a boy who is being trained by a ragtag group of fighters how to master the various martial arts. As his training begins to culminate, he must do a demonstration against several different styles. This not only shows the audience the growth his character has gone through, but it accomplishes what this movie is all about for Jaa, showing the audience he can do pretty much everything just as well as anyone. The first demonstration is against a samurai with a sword. This is fairly formal with Jaa getting the better of three different nicely staged formal interactions. The second demonstration is with a traditional kung fu fighter. They begin with horse stances, formal footwork, and then hand to hand work. Jaa adopts a snake style for a bit and his opponents uses Hung Gar and the traditional phase ends with Jaa using crane style. This was very formal and well structured. The final demonstration is against an MMA type fighter. Jaa's style goes nowhere as the MMA fighter just absorbs the blows and moves in to grapple. Jaa begins to adjust and we get some jujitsu style take downs with large kick and punch strikes mixed in. Taken together, these three demonstrations are strong examples of Jaa's range - even if they aren't exactly the best in class yet.

15. “Jaa vs. an Army & their Elephants” -Ong Bak 3 (2010) Link
- Commentary: In an interesting kind of twist, the newly enlightened Jaa imagines what it would be like to charge into the Demon Crow's camp and take his revenge. It starts out slow, but it's an all-out blood bath with him fighting out dozens and dozens of soldiers and using elephants as weapons (fighting with, on, and around them). There are parts of this sequence that are just jaw-droppingly difficult to choreograph and execute and they look it on the screen. Still, it all ends poorly for Jaa in this rage-filled possible timeline. After it's done, he opens his eyes and realizes it was all imagined - that's who he used to be. A neat little idea here.

GRADE: B+
Very good action sequences with something holding them back from greatness. These sequences are typically best in their film and represent something above and beyond expectations.

14. “Fight Leads to a Speed Boat Chase on the River” -The Protector (2006) Link
- Commentary: After his elephant is stolen, kicking off the conflict for the entire film, Jaa comes looking for the bad guy in charge and he doesn't care how many goons protect him. He busts onto the scene just absolutely busting guys up - throwing them around - and striking them with hard knees and elbows. This is how you set up Jaa as an absolute threat to deal with. With the goons just destroyed, the boss men give up the information. Trapped and with newly arrives goons on his tail, Jaa grabs a skinny river motorboat and escapes. Lots of goons chase behind in their own motorboats. The sequence wastes no time putting one major stunt after another - with boats taking down stilt buildings, ramping up into riverside cafes, and striking filling stations causing explosions. They shoot at Jaa and a helicopter eventually shows up over the water, causing Jaa to turn his boat sideways and make it into a ramp forcing his followers to ramp up into the helicopter - boom! It's a quick chase sequence that packs a heck of a punch. I wish the director would have drawn it out a bit and gotten more out of it - but what we get is just one stunt punch after another. Great stuff here.

13. “Jaa Takes on a Series of Fighters in an Underground Fight Club” -Ong-Bak: Thai Warrior (2005) Link
- Commentary: Yes, the amazing chase sequence takes place first, but this is the first real fight sequence in the film and its one that put an entire generation of action fans on notice - Tony Jaa was a force to be reckoned with. Heck, despite him putting out lots of work after, clips from these fights are still shown today. It's not super intricate or formal and it doesn't follow traditional Chinese Kung Fu - but it was hard hitting and featured an athletic and cinematic version of Muay Thai strikes. This is how you begin a legendary fighter - you allow him to just kick butt against more than competent fighters. Jaa first takes out "Bear" a big guy who he dominates and next takes on a more traditional kung fu fighter his size. The fight is shot wide with Jaa matching him foot for foot. Jaa is just faster and more athletic. he final challenger is "Mad Dog" who begins by breaking a bottle over Jaa's head. Their match is a brawl and Mad Dog proceeds to break pretty much any furniture he can find over Jaa, who just elbow and knee strikes through it all. Mad Dog, knowig he is losing, grabs a woman and drags her upstairs. The fight continues into the box where the big bettors are at. Jaa finishes mad dog by throwing him through the glass to the second floor, kneeing him on the way down. It's good stuff - a new face is on the scene and everyone must take him seriously.  

12. "Police Station Assault: Gun Fights & Fist Fights" -Triple Threat (2019) Link
- Commentary: This is a standout sequence from this all-star team up film. The design of this police station assault is action genius in how it allows for multiple action styles and multiple action sequences to get rolled up into one. Scott Adkins leads the bad guy assault team as they try and assassinate a woman who wants to give her fortune to charity. The initial assault shows off some decent gunplay chops from director Jesse V. Johnson. As the team splits up to find the girl, this allows for different versus matches. The first match is between Tony Jaa and Ron Smoorenburg (remember that great kicker who fought Jackie Chan in Who Am I?) in a quality back and forth until Iko Uwais comes and tips the scales. Next up is Iko Uwais vs. JeeJaa Yanin (who you might remember from 2008's Chocolate) in another quality sparring until Iko gets the upper hand with a grenade launcher. Lastly, we get Tiger Chen vs. Michael Bisping in the lesser of the three fights, even if its still decent. In between these fights is some linking gunplay from Scott Adkins. Ultimately Jaa, Uwais, and Chen get away - chased off into the city market. This is a fun sequence that works best as a compilation of all-stars than a one off feature.

11. “Jaa vs Collins: From Apartment to Rooftop with Falling Finale” -SPL 3: Paradox (2017) Link
- Commentary: This sequence begins when Yu Wue's detective stumbles upon Chris Collins' bad guy roughing up someone in an apartment complex. They fight in the apartment and shots ring out - the sound making it to the street below where Tony Jaa's policeman is waiting. He decides to get involved. Nice close quarters hand to hand fighting between Yu, Collins, and his henchmen here. Jaa arrives as Collins is escaping and the chase shifts primary focus to them. Collins, blocked from going lower, heads to the roof. Yu Wue finishes off the henchmen in a chase to a lower street market. Jaa and Collins continue to fight on the rooftop in some great back and forth - strong and agile strikes here from both men who have decent size. Before the fight goes too long, Collins throws a kid off the roof forcing Jaa to go after him. Hanging on for life, Collins knocks Jaa off the roof to his death. A solid action sequence overall with an emotional ending. I would have liked to see 1-2 more fight beats between Collins and Jaa given this was Jaa's end, but what we got was pretty darn good.

10. “Finale: Showdown in Four Parts” -Triple Threat (2019) Link
- Commentary: This finale sequence in the 2019 film Triple Threat is easily the best action sequence of the film. On paper, teaming up Iko Uwais from The Raid films with Tony Jaa to fight action veterans Scott Adkins and Michael Jai White is a recipe for greatness. The basic premise is that the team of Tiger Chen and Jaa are going to use a wanted woman as bait to draw out Adkins, Michael Jai White, and Iko Uwais. The sequence begins with some decent gunplay and the groups each scatter. One of the first groupings leads to a re-match of Tiger Chen taking on Michael Bisping. It's another decent bout, but Chen just doesn't have the heft here to convincingly take on Bisping. I feel like some of its runtime should have gone to the others. A surprise here (not to the audience) is that Iko is turns on Adkins' team and this leads first to Iko Uwais vs. Michael Jai White sequence. Jai White gets the upperhand in a nice back and forth and eventually Tiger Chen shows up and Jaa gets a finishing move to take out Jai White. Decent stuff, but a meh ending here. All this time, Adkins and Jaa are engaged in a gunfight. Once they run out of bullets, they are off to the races on the fighting and this is where it really ramps up giving us some beautiful and wide multi-move shots. Jaa and Adkins still have much of their agility here. Eventually, Iko joins the fight and we get some well done 2 v 1 sequences. Ending with Jaa vs Adkins giving high quality stuff (some Ong Bak throwback elbows and knees) is a bonus here. This is all well and good - fun stuff - but it's hard not to feel like they ultimately left a little bit on the table here. They've delivered something very good - but it had the opportunity to be truly great.

9. “Rescuing Slaves: Jaa Goes Drunken Style” -Ong Bak 2 (2009) Link
- Commentary: Remember that Jaa's Ong Bak 2 is his way of saying to the fight world - anything you can do I can do better. In this sequence, Jaa presents his mastery of Jackie Chan's drunken style. Instead of comedy, Jaa uses the style to display how effortlessly and lazily he can move from relaxation to total intensity. The leg work in the beginning of the sequence is especially complicated, high-impact, and imaginative stuff. By the end of the fight the drunken style recedes and Jaa morphs into famous hard striking Muy Thai based style. A hard-hitting alternative to Chan's drunken style. Wouldn't have minded seeing an entire Drunken Master reboot with Jaa using this style.

8. “Temple is On Fire: Three Stage Fight” -The Protector (2006) Link
- Commentary: Most of Jaa's first two films play like a sizzle reel of Jaa athletically one-upping his underwhelming opponents. This sequence is Jaa's first example of how he could mix it up with competent opponents in more traditional fighting styles. You don't really need context here except that Jaa finds himself in a burning temple and must fight off a succession of three different fights. This means the fight progresses in three styles - capoeria, kung fu, and brawling. Pay particular attention to the first capoeria fight - there are some fairly long and complicated takes. This is difficult stuff to choregraph, let alone film cinematically - but Jaa makes it all look easy and seamless. The fight isn't over-edited (which can happen with capoeria to cover some of its difficulties), but plays out as Jaa slowly understanding and matching the acrobatic display - he wins the fight with an incredible kick. The second sequence is a kung fu fighter wielding a sword. Jaa eludes the strikes until he can get himself two sticks (used to strike a gong) to fight back. Again, it's the acrobatic strike that finishes him off. The final phase is brawling with the giant Nathan Jones. Jones takes several strikes, bleeds, and then picks Jaa up and tosses him like a doll. A shoulder tackle and kick later and the cops show up. Jones leaves and will fight Jaa later. This is a sequence that barely registers in the top three for The Protector but would easily be the main event for most other films. It's incredible the depth of quality fights you can find on Jaa's earliest work.


GRADE: A-
These are great action sequences with some minor issue(s) holding them back. They are typically best in their film and potentially best of the year.

7. “Finale: Breaking Bones & Slaying Giants” -The Protector (2006) Link
- Commentary: For a long time, this finale sequence from The Protector would have been a possible number one fight for me. It's still amazing and seeing Jaa taking down fighter after fighter with bone-breaking moves is as awesome on screen as it sounds on paper. As I have grown older, I think the sequence, which is obviously desperate to make an impact on the audience, is a little TOO over the top. Jaa's desire to prove himself to the world sometimes led to his team going beyond their cinematic abilities to make their point. It's a great idea - Jaa spends 4 minutes breaking bones in various ways - and it looks great in the choreography, but they can’t help but try and make it even more epic by adding such over the top bone breaking sounds that you eventually stop admiring and just start laughing. A little restraint here would have paid huge dividends I think. This execution of the actual moves is incredible, but just too silly in its sound design to rate higher. The following boss fight against Nathan Jones, three huge body builders (who toss the elephant comically to get Jaa's fighting spirit back up) and the whip wielding head boss is decent but using comically over-sized elephant bones holds this sequence down a bit in my opinion. Looking at this as a comic and you could forgive it - but you just know that Jaa was in that competitive and creative space where this wasn't "too much" for him - this was the next level. 


GRADE: A
Great action sequences that can compete for best of the year and best of all-time.

6. “Finale Fight: Taking on Goons & the Steroid Man in the Caves” -Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2005) Link
- Commentary: I really hope all the stunt men in this sequence got paid for the beating they took. This is not the battle of wills you'll find in later Jaa films with more complicated choreography - but this is a highlight reel of the acrobatic and hard-hitting ways that Jaa could put down bad guys. The premise is basic - Jaa attacks the bad guys lair in some mines. This gives him a chance to take out henchmen with whatever toys he desires (a metal pole in this case), and then work up to the main bad guy. No one was taking out goons with such power and in this style at the time. If you thought the 80's saw some incredible hard hitting stunts, then you will love this one. There are moments where there are no cuts and Jaa just looks like he is trying to take it to the stunt man again and again. It's incredible stuff that is still hard to watch today. I'm sure those stunt men are still feeling some of it today too. By the time Jaa gets to the roided out boss - you might be wondering, "What else is in his arsenal?" The answer is simple - plenty...so long as you enjoy big elbows, knees, and kicks. It's hard hitting, back and forth, with Jaa just a non-stop whirlwind of action here. 

5. “Finale: Jaa and Wu Jing take out Crime Boss Max Zhang” -Kill Zone 2 (2016) Link
- Commentary: This is easily the best traditional fight of Jaa's career after his Ong Bak 2 meltdown. I'm so glad for a film like this that's willing to put Tony Jaa in a prime spot and mostly let him do his thing in ways he hasn't outside of his first three major films. Combining him with Wu Jing to take out Max Zhang's crime boss in this finale leads to pure bliss. Great directors and fight choreographers can do a lot to hide actors who don't have the goods, but when you get three actors with the athleticism and skill that these have - you have the chance for incredible work. As soon as the finale fight kicks off, you know these actors are in the zone. There's just something different when true pro's are at it and they care - the moves are crisper, faster, and harder-hitting. The choreography is excellent, the fighters are giving it their all, and the filmmakers understand how to maximize Jaa's particular fight style. Jaa’s style plays better as the good guy underdog and his moveset that focuses on elbow and knee strikes allow him to punch above his weight. In wrestling it is known as a babyface moveset, because it makes you want to cheer for him. To begin this fight, Jaa gets to take on a group of people, putting him as the underdog and giving him a chance to showcase that moveset. When they get to the main boss, the 2 vs 1 choreography meshes well with Zhang's quick ability to cast Jaa as still out of his league. Zhang here gets to look like a million bucks - with speed and quickness that initially overwhelms the two fighters. It isn't until Wu Jing and Jaa have been bested a couple of times and keep persevering that he is ultimately taken down in the tradition of Kill Zone fights - by being tossed right out of a window.

4. “Foot Chase: Bouncing through the Bangkok Market” -Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (2005) Link
- Commentary: For viewers of the 2005 film Ong Bak, this is the first sequence that made you sit up and say, "Who is this guy?!" This is one of the most inventive and athletic foot chase sequences ever committed to film. Gang members chase down Jaa and two of his buddies through the city and marketplace. The chase has been crafted as a series of increasingly difficult obstacles that require Jaa to jump over, through, and slide under to escape. There are some moments, like jumping through a ring of barbed wire, stepping on the crowd's shoulders, and sliding under the car a should be etched in action history forever. Many of the stunts are so good that they give you an instant replay of them just to emphasize that you really did see what you thought you saw. On top of that, the comedy they attempt actually works well here too! There's a moment when Jaa's companion, who can't keep up, grabs a butchers knife to scare off the gang members in pursuit. For a second they look threatened. Then an old lady walks by with to full bins of knives yelling, "Knives for sale!" There is a pause now and then for some fighting in the sequence, but this is first and foremost a chase about Jaa's athleticism and creativity. This feels like Jaa trying to one-up a classic Jackie Chan chase...and in many ways, he does it.

3. “Warehouse: Skater/Biker Fight” -The Protector (2006) Link
- Commentary: This sequence from The Protector has grown on me over time. From a cinematic standpoint, this might be the best encapsulation of Jaa's overall abilities. The basic premise here is that Jaa interrupts a gang deal going on in a warehouse because one of the gangsters stole his elephant. The gang sicks their goons on him and we get to let Jaa play with all the bad guys and toys he can find in the warehouse. In this sense, the setup is exactly like what Jackie Chan made a living doing in films like Rumble in the Bronx and First Strike. Jaa's action beats here are helped by several well-crafted "one take" shots that are incredibly complex (and don't get the publicity other oners do) and are strung together back to back. The camera work accentuates so well his parkour, acrobatics, and fighting style. Jaa effortlessly climbs fences or slides under them, flips over cars, and somersaults into brutal fighting moves. Aside from some of the biker gang cheesiness, the real miracle here is that he never makes his movements look like cheesy gymnastics karate - but that the moves are intuitive uses of the environment and reactions to the bad guys; that's so much more difficult to do than you think. Anyways, this is the type of sequence that shows the skill ceiling of Jaa is just a bit higher than everyone else. Jaa was lucky to get a director that knew how to edit and highlight the way he has done here. This is incredible stuff that moves from incredible one take to major stunt to brutal fighting. Wow.

2. “One Take Stairway Fight Leads to Johnny” -The Protector (2006) Link
- Commentary: If the "Warehouse Fight" (#3) demonstrated the best the overall talent ceiling of Jaa, this is the fight sequence that shows Jaa is the real deal without any clever camera work needed. The first part of this sequence plays without edits for about 4 minutes as Jaa heads up a circular stairway taking out goons until he gets to the fight with the main villain responsible for taking his elephant, Johnny (which is a nice little extra fight on the top of this scene!). Although the camera moves very cinematically, the lack of edits or CGI is remarkable because Jaa is forced to do all his choreography in one-take, maintain his stamina and strength, and doesn't get the chance to immediately try it over and over (they filmed the one take a total of 7 or so times). The sequence features some stunts that would make Jackie Chan wince and the use of the splits that would make Jean-Claude Van Damme applaud (From 1:50 to about 1:55 in the video link Jaa has to get in place, 5 seconds basically!). There are other sequences that are slicker and better designed/edited to showcase moments, but that's the key here - they are edited. What makes this sequence so breathtaking is that it all plays out in real time. Jaa never came close to anything like it again. This is a stunt team, director, and all-time action star working hard to create something that will last forever. 


GRADE: A+
An all-time great action sequence. This does not mean it is a technically perfect action sequence, just that it is "perfect" to me. This is one I can watch over and over and it doesn't lose its power.


1. “Finale Fight: Assassins, Weapons, & Elephants Oh My!” -Ong Bak 2 (2009)
- Commentary: Do yourself a favor and spend the $3 to rent the video just to see the final 10-15 minutes of this movie. The experience of making this movie may have broken his career trajectory, but at least we got this legendary piece of martial arts film-making out of it. This is Tony Jaa's masterpiece. Like all the greats before him, this one comes from the desire to one-up the rest of the martial arts. The sequence begins with Jaa returning to his village after assassinating the general only to find a group of assassins have arrived. What follows is one of the most intense, complicated, varied, and stylish fight sequences ever committed to film. I have to believe that Jaa was looking to top Japanese Samurai fights and most especially, Lau Kar Lueng weapon fights, like in Legendary Weapons of China or anything with the Gordon Liu. Some of the shots in this finale sequence feature more than 20 complicated moves between multiple fighters before any edit. This is insanity! Jaa doesn't just use multiple weapons well here, he showcases them all in fantastic and complicated long takes that would be career highlights for any fighter.
Additionally, the assassins themselves get specific costumes and fight styles that are so cool and diverse, they could populate an entire franchise of films - but we get to see him fight them all in just one 10 minute epic sequence. The final phase of the fight sees the entrance of an elephant - which is a Jaa trademark. I like to think of this as his Jackie Chan prop fight as Jaa finds every possible way to fit on and around the elephant - using it to his advantage. By the end, if you aren't exhausted by Jaa's endless skill and creativity then you are a soulless creature! This sequence shows Jaa had so much more to offer the world than just his Muy-Thai stylings and out of this world athleticism. 


No comments:

Post a Comment