When famed Thai martial artist Tony Jaa turned up in Furious 7 earlier this year, I confess that I failed to recognize him. In part, that’s because his big fight scene—on the bus that ends up going over a cliff—is opposite Paul Walker, and I was unproductively preoccupied throughout the movie with trying to determine where Walker had been doubled and/or his face had been digitally inserted. But it’s also because I mentally associate Jaa not so much with hand-to-hand combat (even though that’s what he’s primarily known for) as with insane feats of solo athleticism, which he doesn’t get to demonstrate in Furious 7. Plenty of actors can skillfully simulate beating the crap out of other actors, with varying degrees of skill and finesse that I’m not particularly qualified to evaluate. But very few, in my experience (and I concede that I may just not be watching the right exploitation films), can pull off the conceptually simple yet eye-popping stunts that Jaa races through during a chase scene in 2003’s Ong-Bak. Anyone who hasn’t seen this sequence is missing out on one of cinema’s greatest opportunities for sheer gaping.
Not a whole lot of setup is required here. Jaa is the hero, and there are a bunch of bad guys (led here by the dude in shades) who are after him for reasons not worth discussing. Because he’s greatly outnumbered, in this particular instance, Jaa chooses to flee rather than fight, though he’ll get in a little ass-kicking along the way. Unfortunately, the sequence also continually gets bogged down with a dopey comedy routine involving Jaa’s less-athletic buddy (Petchtai Wongkamlao), who keeps attempting to replicate Jaa’s stunts and failing “hilariously.” (That said, the bit in the middle that sees a tense standoff get interrupted by an old woman selling knives is genuinely funny. Still a momentum killer, though.) Mostly, however, this chase scene is just a showcase for physical prowess so incredible that director Prachya Pinkaew gets away with showing most of Jaa’s stunts two or even three times, from different angles, just to confirm that you really did see what you thought you saw. That device can be annoying, but it’s arguably necessary here, so as not to frustrate viewers (like those in an actual movie theater) who are unable to immediately rewind and confirm.
The sequence starts off slow and gradually builds, as it should, with the stunts getting more and more stunning as it goes along. (There’s one notable exception to this rule, which I’ll address later.) At first, Jaa just does some pretty standard leaps, vaulting over a little girl who’s in his path and doing the midair splits over some kind of sharp implement (without tearing the crotch of his pant, like his hapless buddy). Oddly, Pinkaew opts to use slow-mo for what seems like an unremarkable flip onto a table covered with flour, followed by an equally unremarkable backflip off of it. “Unremarkable” is a relative term in this context, obviously—I sure as hell couldn’t do any of it, and neither could you (probably). But it’s all stuff that any performer in this line of work learns early on. As opposed to, say, Jaa cartwheeling at high speed between two panes of glass so close together that his pursuers are forced to awkwardly shimmy through them sideways. Or using a tire as a springboard for a multi-somersault leap over multiple aggressors (though that’s edited in a way that suggests a bit of cheating with respect to the tire).
Then, after a brief interlude that allows Jaa to do some roundhouse kicks to the head, comes the truly jaw-dropping material. Trapped between two large groups of thugs, with no apparent escape, Jaa genuinely appears to be screwed; the first time I saw Ong-Bak, I assumed he’d now be forced to give up running and start fighting in earnest. Instead, Jaa proceeds to run over the entire crew blocking his exit, using their heads and shoulders as stepping stones. Again, I feel like there’s a tiny, acceptable cheat here, because it’s not clear how Jaa launches himself from the ground to shoulder level in the first place, from a standing start; he doesn’t appear to be in a position to use any walls to his advantage, and the moment of takeoff is mostly implied via Jaa’s here-we-go grimace. It doesn’t really matter, though, because he still runs over a dozen dudes’ shoulders as if they’re part of a parkour course. How does one even develop a stunt like that without sending everyone involved to the hospital multiple times? Showing it three times in succession is fair game, because it’s so unexpected that it takes three viewings to process.
And no sooner has it been processed than Jaa moves on to a casual little move he likes to call Oh, Just Hurdling Entire Cars. When I described this stunt to a friend who hadn’t yet seen the film, he was only mildly impressed, which turned out to be because he thought I meant hurdling the hood of a car. That’s something we see all the time in action movies, albeit rarely without the person sliding along the hood to some degree. Vaulting it without touching it all would be a niftier trick. But Jaa can leap over the car’s motherfucking roof without so much as scuffing the paint job, or even breaking stride after he lands. He even does it twice in a row, just to show that he can. It seems like he could do it 10 times in a row, if the cars were spaced correctly. Is this something that any Olympic hurdler can do, and we just don’t know it because, well, why would they? Even if they can, I doubt they can also manage the split-leg slide underneath the truck that Jaa somehow accomplishes without ripping his clothes and skin open. These are feats I would not have thought the human body capable of, had I not actually seen them performed.
Still, perhaps the most impressive stunt of the lot is one that happens early on, during the “easy” section, and doesn’t seem to defy any laws of physics. It’s a very quick shot of Jaa avoiding a collision with a cart and a cyclist, finding an opening in each case the way a running back charges through a hole in the defense. This is the one stunt that calls to mind the great silent comics, because it’s not merely a question of agility—it’s also a matter of perfect timing. In order for it to work, Jaa has to do his leaps without a hitch, but the people providing the obstacles likewise have to be in just the right place at the right time. It’s not a great risk in terms of potential bodily harm, but I’d wager it’s the stunt that demanded the most rehearsal, and that wound up producing the greatest disparity between the amount of work involved and the subsequent “ooh” factor. In a way, that’s true of nearly all acting (and I’d happily defend what Jaa does here as acting): What seems most difficult to the viewer is often easiest for the performer, and vice versa. Maybe should I take a second look at Jaa’s work in Furious 7, come to think of it.