Like Muay Thai itself, martial arts films produced in Thailand are fast, raw, if not downright brutal and of course, it’s exactly that visceral experience that fans are really after.
Thai action filmmakers take the “Ooooh!” reaction to a particularly powerful looking strike or stunt and make us dive onto that rewind key for an instant replay! They’ve practically turned it into a science and in so doing, made their homeland into one of the biggest territories for martial arts movies and fans in the 21st century.
With all the unforgettable skull-cracking, elbow ‘n’ knee smashing movie masterpieces Thailand has produced, it was a daunting task to rank the 10 best but we’ve risen to the challenge. So buckle up KFK readers here is (in descending order) our selection of the Top 10 Best Thai Martial Arts Movies!
10) “Bangkok Adrenaline”
Pretty simple premise here – a couple of Western kids backpacking through Bangkok find themselves in hot water with the wrong set of people and have to fight their way out.
British wushu stylist Danny O’Neill portrays the agile and formidable um… ‘Dan’ and shares the screen with such names as pro-wrestler Conan Stevens, Tim Man, and Kazu Patrick Tang.
Something our hero and his friends learn rather quickly is that Thailand like Hong Kong, always seems to have a surplus of completely vacant warehouses for Muay Thai warriors to kick and flip around in. Clearly a wise investment for the Thai economy given they’re delivering action scenes this cool!
9) “Raging Phoenix”
Aren’t fictional martial arts just the best -taking actual fighting concepts and extrapolating on them as far your imagination can possibly go?
“Raging Phoenix” tells us that somewhere in the history of Thailand, Muay Thai, Drunken Fist, and Capoeira all had a baby and named it “Meyraiyuth”, and some will tell you that no such martial art exists. But when you see Jeeja Yanin and Kazu Patrick Tang executing the techniques of the art so flawlessly here, who are you gonna believe, history books or your own eyes? Impressive stuff!
8) “Vengeance of an Assassin”
The first of several titles from Thailand’s action maestro, the late Panna Rittikrai (RIP) to make this list. This marked Master Panna’s final film before his untimely death in 2014, and we couldn’t have asked for a better sendoff.
Ever the innovator, he opens the film with a far more brutal version of “Shaolin Soccer” and from there, spends roughly 90 minutes coming up with ways for the cast of the film to stretch their thresholds of pain to the maximum. Maybe the bounds of disbelief get pushed a tad too far -I mean after all, has there ever been a confirmed case of survival after being impaled through the chest?
The amazing Dan Chupong brings his A-game, awesome skills and battle cries to the table here. Midst all of the Muay Thai mayhem, the film even works in a one-shot gun battle sequence that even John Woo would gleefully acknowledge and respect.
7) “Born to Fight” (2004)
You’ve heard of the sub-genre of action films known as the “Die Hard” knockoff -a terrorist group seizes control of a man-made structure of some kind, “but there was one man they didn’t count on!” Well, Master Panna’s rendition of that template in “Born to Fight” is “Die Hard in a Village”, and the man in question is Dan Chupong again but he’s hardly alone.
The entire last third of the film is a massive, frenetic free-for-all in a village held captive. Every inhabitant finds some way to apply skill sets like kicking a soccer ball or working around being an amputee on a crutch to fight for their freedom. Seriously action-packed fun on a grand scale!
6) “Ong Bak 2: The Beginning”
Bet you were just itching to see Tony Jaa show up here. The world already knew he was the real deal when it came to Muay Thai, but Tony was just warming up. In “Ong Bak 2”, he blends it with half a dozen other fighting styles to become the mightiest warrior the screen has ever seen.
With its setting in medieval Thailand, Tony is really able to pile extra savagery into the film which takes it up few notches. Although originally intended as a singular sprawling epic, the film was ultimately split into two parts with the first ending on a cliffhanger…read on…
5) “Ong Bak 3”
If Tony Jaa has ever produced a movie to which the term “underrated” is almost criminally applicable, it’s “Ong Bak 3”.
It’s not only that the Muay Thai action is just as amazing as its predecessor (arguably more so) it’s also the character shift that Tony makes here that makes it so good.
Whilst our hero turned into a wild animal gone berserk when fists started flying in “Ong Bak 2”, we see him transform into a peaceful and serene monk here in “Ong Bak 3”. It’s that contrast that carries over into the action and practically jumps out at you when watching the two films side by side, or even at the ending of this one. Give “Ong Bak 3” a look folks, it’ll be well worth your time.
Let’s admit it when in the early stages of learning our respective fighting art, we all made an attempt to accelerate our training by mimicking fight scenes right out of martial arts movies, right?
What’s less common is for someone to be entirely self-taught via this very method, but that’s exactly how ‘Zen’, the heroine of “Chocolate” goes about it. Its main star, Jeeja Yanin instantly became Thailand’s answer to Michelle Yeoh with her laudable, solid performance here and proved herself to be a pretty decent actress.
Here, she portrays an autistic young woman who can only process the world around her through the prism of Tony Jaa movies. This turns her into a dangerous, somewhat unpredictable kicking machine that can single-handedly dispose of Yakuza thugs that menace and terrorise her family. Who can argue with that?
3) “Born to Fight”
That’s no typo, there are two movies on this list titled “Born to Fight“, the first one you read about was Master Panna’s remake of this very film. Admittedly though, they share next to nothing in common beyond their title. The DVD cover proudly displays a quote from Master Panna’s disciple Tony Jaa, who proclaims, “This is the film which inspired me to pursue a dream“. If you require further endorsement than that, here you go:
Master Panna became better known in his later years as an action filmmaker, but this is easily his magnum opus in front of the camera. He shows off stacks of superb, clean, sharp physical skills, stunts and style. He most definitely shared Jackie Chan’s fearlessness in performing stunts,
including a few involving fire, as if Thailand wasn’t hot enough!
2) “Tom Yum Goong”
Also known by its English title “The Protector“, Tony Jaa hightails it to Australia to track down two of his precious stolen family elephants. Problem is though, there are a swarm of nefarious henchmen (with nasty plans for endangered animals) standing in his way, equipped with deadly fighting skills.
Master Panna and Tony Jaa pulled in an amazing talent pool of opponents, such as Johnny Nguyen, Jon Foo, and Lateef Crowder, all of whom would go on to become big names in martial art movies. They would also pit Tony against Australia’s very own monolithic giant, World Strongest Man contender and ex-WWE wrestler Nathan Jones -quite possibly the most imposing villain you could get!
Most memorably, the film presents a new variant of Muay Thai called Muay Kodchasaan, (Elephant Boxing) which is based on elephantine characteristics and grappling maneuvers. Tony puts the art to use in an incredible scene against about fifty foes (including veteran action actor Ron Smoorenburg). You really can’t help but be impressed at the sheer number of creative techniques our hero uses to break humans’ bones -OUCH!!
The sequel “TYG2“, which pits Tony against RZA and especially Marrese Crump, captures some stunning, unique fight choreography too!
Now we come to our number one Thai Martial Arts Film which is…
1) “Ong Bak: The Muay Thai Warrior”
Don’t we just love these words: No stunt doubles. No wire work. No CGI! Those were some of the impressive selling points for this groundbreaking classic. Let’s look at some highlights: the three superb and distinctly vicious fight scenes at the ‘Fight Club’, the outdoor market chase scene including that leap through the ring of barbed wire, and escaping a bunch of goons by jumping up onto and running atop their shoulders! We’ve also got Tony fighting off enemies with legs on fire as well as landing a helmet-splitting flying knee into a motorcycle-riding villain!
The sheer volume of brilliantly orchestrated fight sequences, death-defying stunts and Muay Thai combat (which the world had never seen on the big screen before) is all packed into one movie right here.
Recall if you will the way the world responded to hits such as “Ip Man” or “The Raid” and if that seems familiar, it’s because that’s exactly the same reaction we all had to “Ong Bak”, these movies had extra realism and style and reeled off like poetry in motion picture form.
“Ong Bak” would for years serve as the barometer for martial arts cinema. Everything was evaluated by the standards set by “Ong Bak”. On top of that, it not only made Tony Jaa and Panna Rittikrai worldwide superstars, but simultaneously put Thailand permanently on the map for hardcore martial arts action fans. “Ong Bak” didn’t just raise the bar, it BECAME the bar having singlehandedly elevated the genre to a whole new level and is therefore fully deserving of its number one slot.