Tony Jaa Didn't Make It Out Of Ong Bak's Flaming Fight Scene Unscathed

In the /Film conversation on the best martial arts movies, Prachya Pinkaew's 2003 gem "Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior" stands tall. Featuring the full-contact fight choreography of the late Panna Rittikrai (head of the parkour-happy Muay Thai Stunt team), the actioner features a parade of incredible acrobatic, multidisciplinary stunts, with a spotlight on its star, Tony Jaa. Jaa leaps through a barbed-wire hoop without a scratch, knocks a giant out with one kick, absorbs blows with every item of furniture available, and conducts himself with an energy level unseen outside of the "Dragon Ball" universe. Many who watch his films, from the "Ong Bak" sequels to "The Protector" and its sequel to "The Expendables 4," are shocked to learn his stunts are without CG or wires. But there's plenty of peril.

"Ong Bak" tells the tale of a villager named Ting (Jaa), on a mission to recover the stolen head of a Buddhist statue sharing the title's name. On his journey, a notable scene finds him at a gas station, warding off armed thugs. At one point his legs become engulfed in fire, but that doesn't stop him from jumping out of the flames like he's springloaded and delivering a flying knee to a shocked assailant. The stunt that follows is a water-soaked back handspring kick. Such stuntwork, Jaa said, is the work of meticulous planning:

"Me and my master would choreograph the scenes, and the director would tell us how he wanted the scene to be, then they would talk about it. The stunts we did took a long time because we would write them out as a storyboard first, and then we did test shots to see how they looked before we did the actual filming."

Despite Jaa's extensive training, he didn't walk away from the shoot untouched.

Portrait of A Stuntman on Fire

Stunt work can be an elusive animal. The "Jackass" crew, known for their ill-advised feats of daring, operate under the ethos that the only bad stunt is the one that wasn't captured on film. Thai cinema is a bit more discerning, requiring multiple takes to nail a perfect stunt filmed at the perfect angle without obstruction. The repeat takes take a toll on the stars. Often, the first take is risky enough. Jaa told Firecracker magazine his woes:

"I tore a ligament and sprained my ankle. That put me out for a month. And in one of my favorite moments, I actually got burned. I really had to concentrate because once my pants were on fire the flames spread upwards very fast and burnt my eyebrows, my eyelashes and my nose. Then we had to do a couple more takes to get it right!"

The result, however, is breathtaking, particularly when thrown into relief by funnyman Humlae (Petchtai Wongkamlao), whose skills have nowhere near the same level of finesse or accuracy as Ting's. Thai cinema continues to make waves with films like Banjong Pisanthanakun's chiller "The Medium," and much of the overseas success can be traced back to the work of Tony Jaa and early aughts Thai action.