Action cinema has long been recognised as the genre that allows the medium to fully express itself in all its high-tech glory. Featuring glitzy special effects, complicated camera work and explosive sound design, action cinema allows for a wild amount of creative control for the filmmakers that chose to utilise its versatility, from the likes of American directors Brad Bird and James Cameron to Hong Kong director’s John Woo and Jackie Chan.
Forever transforming the landscape of Hong Kong action cinema, it was the aforementioned Jackie Chan who would go on to inspire so many, with his affable persona going hand in hand with his daring feats of daredevil filmmaking. Together with the influential 20th-century icon, Bruce Lee, Chan would lead a whole generation of young people to take up martial arts, leading to the success of future film stars Jet Li and Tony Jaa.
“What they [Lee, Chan, and Li] did was so beautiful, so heroic that I wanted to do it too,” Jaa told Time Magazine in an interview in 2004, explaining that it was constant practise that got him to a similar standard as his influential film idols. Beginning training in Muay Thai at his local temple at the age of 10, many years later Jaa would begin his work in the film industry as a stuntman, mastering the trade for 14 in which time he would appear in many of the films of the iconic martial artist Panna Rittikrai.
Such consistent success in the industry led the actor to his first major role in 2003’s Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior where he would find breakout international acclaim for his performance and stunning stunt work. Performing all his own fights and action set-pieces without mechanical assistance on computer-generated special effects, the film became the perfect vehicle to demonstrate Jaa’s extraordinary acrobatic ability.
From high-flying jumps to brutal fight sequences, Tony Jaa endured multiple extraordinary feats of danger, none more dramatic than when he was lit on fire for one particularly insane real-life stunt. Speaking to Firecracker Magazine back in 2006, Jaa revealed, “I actually got burned,” in the process of performing the scene, adding, “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”.
With the lucrative contracts and sheer superstardom that modern Hollywood superstars find themselves possessing, you’d be hard pressed to find a contemporary actor who would be willing to put themselves through a similar level of physical pain all in the pursuit of action authenticity.
Jackie Chan was known for such wild stunts when he took cinema by storm in the 1990s, leading him to several death-defying moments such as when he fractured his skull sliding down a tree in Armor of God, or broke his vertebrae on the set of Police Story.
Take a look at the original behind the scenes video of Tony Jaa setting himself on fire on the set of Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, below.