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

*Scroll down past the paragraphs below if you want to just skip to the action scenes

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 25 Action Sequences
*I’m not including his work from Furious 7 or xXx: Return of Xander Cage because his work in each film amounts to a few minutes ( worth of screen time stretched out over several different sequences and he’s really just a minor part of those.

25. “Killing the General at the Palace after a Dance” -Ong Bak 2 (Link)
24. “Finale Fight: Jaa vs. the Crow” -Ong-Bak 3 (Link)
23. “Tortured as Prisoner but Fighting Back” -Ong-Bak 3 (Link)
22. “Street Bike Chase on the Roofts Heads to the Streets” -The Protector 2 (Link 1(Link 2(Link 3)
21. “Dolph Lundgren vs. Tony Jaa” -Skin Trade (Link)
20. “Tony Jaa fights and subdues a rowdy prisoner (Wu Jing)” -Kill Zone 2 (Link)
19. “Attack on the Police Station: Gun Fights & Fist Fights” -Triple Threat (Link)
18. “Michael Jai White vs. Tony Jaa” -Skin Trade (Link)
17. “Jaa Takes on a Series of Fighters in an Undergound Fight Club” -Ong-Bak: Thai Warrior (Link)
16. “Shipyard Brawl: Jaa vs Pixie Sisters & Mareese Cump” -The Protector 2 (Link 1(Link 2)
15. “Finale: Jaa & Pixie Sister take on Mareese Crump & Goons: -Protector 2 
14. “Jaa vs. an Army & their Elephants” -Ong-Bak 3 (Link)
13. “Fight Leads to a Speed Boat Chase on the River” -The Protector (Link)
12. “Jaa vs Collins: From Apartment to Rooftop with Falling Finale” -SPL 3: Paradox (Link)
11. “Styles Clash: Jaa vs. Samurai, Kung Fu, & MMA” -Ong Bak 2 (Link)

10. “Finale: Jaa and Uwais vs. Adkins” -Triple Threat (Link)
- This finale sequence in the 2019 film Triple Threat is easily the best moment of the film. On paper, teaming up Iko Uwais from The Raid films with Tony Jaa to fight action veteran Scott Adkins is a recipe for greatness. While the sequence finally ramps up near the end, giving us some beautiful and wide multi-move shots, it's hard not to feel like they left a little bit on the table here.

9. “Temple is On Fire: Three Stage Fight” -The Protector (Link)
- 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. This 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. The fight isn't over-edited (which can happen with capoeria to cover some of its weaknesses), but plays out as Jaa slowly understanding and matching the acrobatic display. It's a sequence that comes on the mid-card of The Protector but would easily be the main event for most other films.

8. “Rescuing Slaves: Jaa Goes Drunken Style” -Ong Bak 2 (Link)
- 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 intensity. The leg work in the beginning of the sequence is especially complicated, high-impact, and imaginative stuff.

7. “Finale: Breaking Bones & Slaying Giants” -The Protector (Link)
- For a long time, this finale sequence from The Protector would have been a possible number one fight for me. As I have grown older, I think the sequence, which is obviously desperate to make an impact on the audience, is 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. This execution of the actual moves is incredible, but just too silly in its sound design to rate higher. To move on to the boss fights using comically over-sized elephant bones holds this sequence down a bit in my opinion.

6. “Finale Fight: Taking on Goons & the Steroid Man in the Caves” -Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (Link)
- 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 more complicated choreography - but this is a highlight reel of the acrobatic and hard-hitting ways that Jaa could put down bad guys. No one was taking out goons with such power and in this style at the time. 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.

5. “Foot Chase: Bouncing through the Bangkok Market” -Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior (Link)
- For viewers of the 2003 Ong Bak, this is the sequence that made you sit up and say, "Who is this guy?!" This is one of the most inventive and athletic chase sequences ever committed to film. It's 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 the barbed wire, stepping on the crowd's shoulders, and sliding under the car that should be etched in action history forever. On top of that, the comedy actually works well here too. This feels like Jaa trying to one-up a Jackie Chan chase...and in many ways, he does.

4. “Warehouse: Skater/Biker Fight” -The Protector (Link)
- This sequence from The Protector has grown on me over time. From a cinematic standpoint, this might be the best encapsulation of his overall abilities. Jaa is helped here by several well-crafted mini-one take shots that are incredibly complex (and don't get the publicity other oners do) strung together. The camera work accentuates so well the parkour, the acrobatics, and the fighting. Jaa effortlessly climbs fences, slides under them, flips over cars, and somersaults into brutal fighting moves. Aside from some of the biker cheesiness, the real miracle here is that he never makes it 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.

3. “Finale: Jaa and Wu Jing take out Crime Boss & Hang Off Roof” -Kill Zone 2 (Link)
- This is easily the best fight of Jaa's career after his Ong Bak 2 meltdown. Combining with Wu Jing to take out Max Zhang's crime boss, Jaa gets the chance to show off his set of skills in ways he hasn't outside of his first three major films. 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 - 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. Beyond the execution, there's a great story told within this final fight - something Jaa's fights, post Ong Bak 2, sorely lack.

2. “One Take Stairway Fight Leads to Johnny” -The Protector (Link)
- I said that the "The Warehouse Fight" (#4) demonstrated 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 Johnny (which is a nice little cherry 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.

1. “Finale Fight: Assassins, Weapons, & Elephants Oh My!” -Ong Bak 2 (Link 1(Link 2)
- The links above do not do this sequence justice. For whatever reason, there isn't a single spot on youtube that has the finale sequence from Ong Bak 2 in one video or even back to back in several parts. The above links chop it up and you miss much of it. 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 masterpiece of martial arts film-making out of it. Jaa's desire to one-up the martial arts world is clearly on display here. The sequence begins with Jaa returning to his village 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 Master Killer Gordon Liu. Some of the sequences in this finale are more than 20 complicated moves between multiple fighters before any edits. 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. It's a shame that the whole thing isn't available on youtube so it could receive more credit. Also, I think if Jaa was able to "Hollywood" up his main character's costume and look, this sequence would be better remembered as well. As it stands, his look is messy, but unmemorable. If only he was able to nail down an iconic look for himself in this fight - it could be remembered as the greatest. This sequence shows Jaa had so much more to offer the world than just his muy thai stylings and out of this world athleticism. It's too bad the right financiers and muses never came along to bring it out of him.

What do you think? Did I rate his sequences right?

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