The Muay Thai Masterpiece: Martial Arts Flick of the Future
By: Jacob O. Gold

It’s your typical Thai Mafia cocktail hour at this contempo-seventies mansion in a rich suburb of Sydney, Australia. Squat, pudgy crime bosses toss back drinks in a spacious sunroom, surrounded by henchmen and giggling molls. One particularly toadlike don is dressed only in a towel, hot suction bowls puckered up and down his back. The ambiance is relaxed, self-satisfied. The latest evil enterprise seems to be coming along nicely. That is until, literally out of nowhere, an enraged villager flies into the room, screaming. After landing on the plush carpeting in combat stance, eyes bugged out and nostrils flared, this deadly yokel proceeds to utterly, mercilessly wreck the place. Those not immediately paralyzed with fear manage to scramble into the adjoining rooms (they will not be spared). Anyone in the immediate path of the intruder’s rampage gets wrecked.

This quick, decisive onslaught - which includes the towel-clad underboss being thrown against a wall down which he slides with the wounds on his back from the shattered suction bowls trailing thick bands of blood - culminates in the following manner: Between the attacker and his primary target - a diminutive man wearing a thin mustache and little circular glasses - stand two stupefied henchmen, feigning the will to engage. The furious avenger treats these two like pinball solenoids that go crunch, kicking one and then the other back and forth like he’s racking up bonus points, until the rapid, powerful kicks which had been holding up this long-since-devastated pair finally cease and they both drop to the ground. With no one left between the attacker and himself, the little old man cowers against a frosted glass panel, trying to disappear into it. As if feeding off the futility, the attacker leaps at the man from halfway across the room. Coasting through the air in slow motion, he draws both knees up and outward, twin battering rams.

Trailer for Ong-Bak

Time slows to a pounding crawl as Tony Jaa, star of this summer’s The Protector, collides knees-first with his villainous target, propelling him through the glass panel which splinters everywhere as Jaa emerges through the torrent of snowy shards, his knees still pummeling deeply into the crumpled chest of the falling man. He actually does this, for real. No wires, no computers. Here he is, the Overman of Southeast Asia. The Muay Thai action flick, utterly Nietzschean in its marriage of sublime brutality and human righteousness, is the martial arts genre of the future now arrived. Muay Thai action, in its cadence, form, and stylistic emphasis, represents a completely new paradigm in the history of martial arts film.

The opening credits of The Protector - a repackaging of Thailand’s 2005 blockbuster Tom Yum Goong for the US market - bill the film as presented by none other than that glossily eminent kung-fu cultist himself, Quentin Tarantino. One supposes that this is how the business of cinegeek cognoscenti cool is run these days. No time for roots underground - the cult commodity has gone hydro, crackling alive at the transparent commercial surface, for better or worse. We are being handed the new wave through interlocking distributorships and tactical marketing schemes. Yet, while watching Tony Jaa in a muay thai thrash-em-up, one manages to remain blissfully unconcerned. This deeply rewarding spectacle embraces the exuberance of the big-budget blockbuster and manages, unlike most recent Hollywood attempts at this caliber of picture, not to embarrass or disappoint. Far, far from it.

Two films currently spearhead the Thai action invasion. They are both the result of a collaboration between the same new star (Tony Jaa), his mentor and veteran action choreographer (Panna Rittikrai), and producer/director (Prachya Pinkaew). These films, Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior and The Protector, were released in Thailand several years ago but have only arrived on our country’s public market within the year. Both films combine high-speed chases in a wide range of conveyances (The Protector features a particularly thrilling and explosive chase using long, narrow river boats that shoot like torpedos over the water), impressive acrobatics using the features of dense urban spaces, and, of course, the signature mature arts style of Muay Thai.


Trailer for The Protector
Thai Preview for The Protector (Tom Yum Goong)


Muay Thai is one of many regional names for an ancient form of Southeast Asian martial arts which encompasses a range of sub-styles. Like its more widely known analogs to the north - Kung-Fu, Karate, Taekwondo - muay thai was in fact formerly used by specially trained soldiers in battle, but is now the proud stuff of popular sport and cinema. Muay Thai is sometimes called Thai kickboxing. It resembles more a more geometrically rendered version of the drunken self-combat Martin Sheen practices before the mirror in Apocalypse Now. Signature moves include long swinging kicks, knees, elbows, and flying into people using kicks, knees, and elbows. Over here it has been successfully adapted into a fitness center exercise method. Over there the practice of the sport ranges from the equivalent of human cockfighting in sweaty, liquor-charged backwoods gambling dens all the way to the level of the multimillion-dollar national athletic scene replete with high-paid superstars. These boxers exhibit all the colorful personality, madness, lore, and sometimes-fame of their American counterparts from decades long past.

Ong-Bak and The Protector, however, concentrate not on the sport but on the martial art’s mythic national legacy. In both films, Jaa plays a young muay thai master from the rural heartland who must travel to the big, modern, and corrupt city in order to rescue some fixture of the Thai cultural tradition from its debasement at the hands of criminal profiteers. In Ong-Bak, Jaa must travel to Bangkok to rescue the looted head of his village’s Buddha/deity idol in time for the harvest festival before the head is sold to dealers on the black (and bloody) art market. In The Protector, Kham (played by Jaa) and his father belong to an ancient royal order whose job is to raise, tend, and protect the sacred war elephants.

These protectors once used muay thai as they stormed into battle alongside their elephants, defending the vulnerable underbellies of the beasts by kicking and elbowing the living shit out of any enemy soldier in their vicinity

(these beatdowns of yore are demonstrated in the inspirational glyphic visions Jaa’s character experiences from time to time). Now, with their royal task seemingly past the brink of irrelevance, Jaa’s father is swindled by royal elephant inspectors, who had over a cherished elephant and its newborn son to triads with gruesome, shamanistic intentions. Kham, as a deadly master of muay thai must resume the charge of the elephant protectors once again.

That’s the formula to make the violence a glorious cathartic pleasure: ratchet up the moral conviction to an almost messianic level and there is no guilt holding the viewer back from emitting and exquisite groan or howl of dumbfounded laughter whenever Jaa pulls off another wrenchingly brutal blow. Unlike kung-fu, which plays on the fluid symmetrical dance between opponents before the decisive turn in one or another’s favor, muay thai is a style of unrelenting extremes. Seldom does Jaa face off against an even opponent. More often he is either the donor or recipient of heavily skewed, loudly concussive bone-crunching violence. In a way this Armageddon sensibility is incredibly pleasing to witness, to engage oneself in as an enraptured partisan voyeur of the violence.

It is a far clearer syntax of violence, a kind of shotgun poetry that truly delivers awe in a genre that is today either too weighted down with hip irony or simply a boring parade of punches and kicks.


The action film has been moribund in this country for some time, and our martial arts imports have been unimpressive since the advent of Jackie Chan in the mid-1990s. The one recent success - Jet Li’s 2005 Unleashed- adopts a cadence of aggression much like that of Jaa’s films, attesting to the power of this new mode of action. There is something deeply comforting about how good it feels to watch Ong-Bak or The Protector. They are honest pictures - all the stunts are real. Here is the comforting thought that we were never so estranged from movie magic, from the impact of cinema after all. The traditionalism of Jaa’s heroic personae seems to tell us that we have simply gone astray, and though we are in danger, he is coming to rescue us.

All opinions expressed by Jacob O. Gold are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.

© Stay Thirsty Media, Inc. 2006
All Rights Reserved

Privacy Policy | Terms of Use | Terms of Sale | Site Map


*A PURCHASE IS REQUIRED TO ENTER THE PLAYWRIGHT AWARD CONTEST. Contest ends 2/1/07. Open to US legal residents of the 50 US and DC, who are 18 years or older at time of entry. Subject to Official Rules. VOID WHERE PROHIBITED.


Search Web
Search this site