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.' "

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