Meet the Next Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li

Up-and-coming movie star Tony Jaa has heard the inevitable comparisons: He's the next Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan and Jet Li, the heir-apparent to the action star throne.

But Jaa doesn't mind. He grew up admiring Lee, Chan and Li. However, the 28-year-old Thai star of "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior," which opened nationwide in the United States last Friday, wants to make one thing clear: He doesn't want to erase Lee's legend. He is only carrying on his legacy.

"I feel very proud. But to be clear, I don't think I could ever replace Bruce Lee," Jaa said through an interpreter in an interview with "He's my inspiration. No matter if it's Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan or Jet Li, they are my inspirations. They are like masters to me."

Jaa seems poised to become the movie industry's new martial arts poster boy in his first starring role. His predecessors are aging -- Chan is 50, while Li is 41 -- and the action flick genre needs new blood.

In "Ong-Bak," Jaa plays Ting, a kind-hearted orphan who lives in the small village of Nong Pradu in Thailand and is trained in the ancient martial art of Muay Thai. Ting's master makes him promise to never use his skills. But when the head of the village's sacred Ong-Bak Buddha statue is stolen by drug dealers, Ting volunteers to retrieve it on a mission to Bangkok and is forced to use his butt-kicking talents.

From Water Boy to Stuntman to Action Star

In some ways, Jaa is a lot like Ting. Born Panom Yee-rum in the small Thai province of Surin, Jaa grew up watching martial arts movies and training in martial arts. His early film favorites included Chan's "Police Story," Lee's "The Way of the Dragon," "Fists of Fury" and the Thai action flick "Born to Fight." Jaa says initial influences were Chan and Thai action star Phanna Rithikrai, who wrote, directed, produced and starred in "Born to Fight."

Jaa's father took him to meet Rithikrai when the star was working on a movie. The Thai movie star and stuntman took Jaa under his tutelage and trained the young teen in kung fu and stunt work. Rithikrai was a martial arts and stunt choreographer along with Jaa on "Ong-Bak."

"I first got to know him [Rithikrai] by watching his films, the fact that he was a death-defying stuntman," Jaa said. "To me, he is like family. He is like my brother, he is like my father. He has taught me so many things -- from Buddhism for the spirit to the things you should live for. We both had the same goal of making Thai films for the world to see."

Jaa studied tae kwon do, swordplay and gymnastics, and, ultimately, Muay Thai. He gave demonstrations in northeast Thailand and China. He worked as a water boy, cook and crewmember on movie sets until he got his first break in the movie industry when he served as a stunt double for actor Robin Shou in the 1995 movie "Mortal Kombat." Ultimately, Jaa got the attention of director Prachya Pinkaew, who was so impressed with his work on "Mortal Combat" and tapes of his various martial arts demonstrations that he wrote "Ong-Bak" especially for the budding star.

"With stunt work, I saw that you're only behind the scenes and people never get to see your true abilities," Jaa said. "So I finally got a chance to put together a project with my master and present it to the director and now you have 'Ong-Bak.' "

No Special Effects Needed

"Ong-Bak" was a success overseas, becoming the highest-grossing Thai film in 2003 and leading the box office in Hong Kong. Jaa's martial arts performance generated a buzz at various film festivals and on the Internet, leading to its debut in the United States. It has won over fans such as director Quentin Tarantino and the RZA of rap's Wu-Tang Clan.

Don't look for any special effects reminiscent of "The Matrix" trilogy in "Ong-Bak." Jaa, like Chan in his early movies, does his own stunts and fight scenes. "Ong-Bak" is not Oscar-caliber drama like "Million Dollar Baby," but it is a lot of fun to watch for action flick aficionados. There is one flame fight scene where Jaa gives new meaning to the term "hot-steppin'."

Jaa said he does not worry too much about hurting himself or his crewmates during film projects.

"Yes, you are afraid but we take a lot of safety precautions," Jaa said. "Everyone should know about the heart and dedication that went into making the film. So any fear of injury [in a given film], that just passes with the dedication you have toward making the film."

Jaa has the swift-footed, breath-taking pugilistic grace of Lee and the agility of Li. Though "Ong-Bak" has some comedic elements, Jaa lacks the comic charm of Chan. Still, his bronze physique and chiseled facial features arguably give him greater Hollywood leading man potential than Lee, Li or Chan ever had.

Dedication to Homeland and Muay Thai

Jaa doesn't seem to be feeling the weight of his growing U.S. stardom or the martial arts film legacy of his forefathers. Sitting in a suite at a Grand Hyatt hotel overlooking New York's Park Avenue, he has an easy, ready smile and greets his visitors with a bow and a double-clasped handshake. Despite his posh surroundings, Jaa doesn't seem to have the guarded demeanor many Hollywood stars ultimately develop.

His eyes slightly puffy after awaking from an afternoon nap, Jaa conceded his promotional tour for "Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior" -- which has included interviews and martial arts demonstrations -- sometimes has been a "workout in itself." And he wasn't quite accustomed to New York City's chilly 31-degree weather in February. Still, Jaa was enjoying his first trip to the Big Apple and new fame and fans.

"It's been very, very exciting, seeing my poster on the street," Jaa said. "The other day, I walked out of the car, and somebody recognized me and said, 'Ong-Bak! Ong-Bak!' "

Jaa's family still lives in his native Thailand. His relatives avoided the tragic tsunami in December because they live outside of the areas affected by the giant, deadly waves. Jaa -- who is single -- remains close to his family as his career blossoms.

'They are proud of me. They pray for me, wish me luck," Jaa said. "They miss me and want me to come home."

After he completes his promotional tour, Jaa will resume filming his second movie, "Tom Yum Goong," a sequel to "Ong-Bak." He said he hopes to work with Li someday. But for now, Jaa wants to continue to follow in his martial arts masters' footsteps and educate the public about Muay Thai and Thailand.

"I want to present Muay Thai the same way Bruce Lee presented kung fu -- through the art of film," Jaa said. "I've always wanted to do this, ever since I saw my heroes Jackie Chan, Bruce Lee and Jet Li. With me having Muay Thai, I want to show the people of Thailand through film and develop more interest in Thailand and Muay Thai. That's my hope for the future."