Actor Tony Jaa, like the character he portrays in “Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior,” is able to turn his body into a war weapon a stealth bomber of punches and kicks that blitzes an opponent and then – bang, lights out, London.

While Jaa may be the quiet type, “Ong-Bak” is making a lot of noise at the global box office. It was a hit in Asia and Europe, and it is promising to do the same here, propelling Jaa (Thai name: Phanom Yeerum), 28, to the front of the action pack. With age and shifting interests ushering Jackie Chan, Stephen Seagal, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Mel Gibson out of the rock-’em-sock-’em sweepstakes, Jaa could find himself in major demand.

Certainly, it was designed that way. Director Prachya Pink-aew was on the hunt for a fresh face to mold into a star and turned to elder Thai action actor Phanna Rithikrai, Jaa’s mentor for the last 18 years. The director was so knocked out by what he saw of Jaa that he crafted “Ong-Bak” – the story of a man going up against thugs to take back what belongs to his village – specifically for him.

For Jaa, it was a living dream. “I watched Phanna’s films since I was young. He was one of the first Thai action heroes, and I’d come home and replicate them,” he says in a phone interview through a translator.

Jaa, who works without wires or special effects, helped with the often amazing fight choreography. Having done stunt work since he was 15 – he was a double in “Mortal Kombat” – he wanted the chance to be the central figure. “Friends saw (“Mortal Kombat’) and I’d say, ‘That’s me’ but they couldn’t tell because it was a double,” he recalls.

The actor, who grew up the son of elephant trainers in a poor area of northeast Thailand, is excited about what “Ong-Bak” might do for both the Thai film business and the Muay Thai style of martial arts that he practices.

“This is the first film that shows the Thai way of life and how Muay Thai plays an important part,” he says. “It’s something novel for people. They haven’t seen something like this before.”


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