The brilliance of Panna Rittikrai’s inspirational action cinema

Filmmaker, action choreographer and martial artist Panna Rittikrai sadly passed away on July 20th. He was just 53 years old.

One of my favourite memories of his work is from his 1984 directorial debut, Born to Fight. There’s a scene where Rittikrai is teaching two kids how to fight, and he gives a demonstration of his own skills as a martial artist. Rittikrai mixes his personal style with a dash of Bruce Lee footwork and a very heavy dose of Jackie Chan, even going so far as to mimic the latter’s work in Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow by the request of the children.

It’s a fine showcase for Rittikrai’s talents as a martial artist but it at no point feels egotistical. This is not a scene in which our hero, or the actor himself, ‘shows off’. It’s about a passion for Jackie Chan’s work, and for the many other martial artists who led the way. Rittikrai’s character self-deprecatingly references the fact that he learnt his moves from movies. But this scene shows that Thai martial artists can do these moves too – and that they may even have something new to offer.

Later in the film, Rittikrai’s character fights a group of ninjas and when one of them comes at him with a “Chinese sword” he fights back with “Thai swords.” These are actually just steel pipes.

Rittikrai’s films were so often about that kind of love for the underdog, and demonstrated a belief that anyone can fight back and stand up for themselves. It’s what often made them so compelling even when the plotting was perhaps a little hit and miss. You really wanted the hero to win.

In 2004, Rittikrai directed another film which was released under the title Born to Fight and whilst it wasn’t a remake of his 1984 film – as it is often misreported to be – it carries the same message and belief in the little guy triumphing over an oppressive force.

And it also features some of the most extraordinary and terrifying stunt work ever committed to film.

Born to Fight (1984) ends with a credit that states that it was made by the P.P.N Stunt Team, which would later become the Muay Thai Stunt Team. This was a group of highly skilled experts in martial arts, gymnastics, stunts and a whole variety of other disciplines that Rittikrai helped to tutor. They worked on his own films and those of his frequent collaborator Prachya Pinkaew, as well as for many films that were made beyond the borders of Thailand.

The most famous member of the P.P.N Stunt Team is without a doubt the martial arts superstar Tony Jaa. The story of how Jaa and Rittikrai first met is actually really extraordinary. I have no doubt that someone will, one day, attempt a biopic of Jaa and many people will doubt this particular part of the story.

Tony Jaa had been banned from seeing the original Born to Fight but he was so desperate to see it, he disobeyed orders and jumped from a second floor window to get out. Afterwards, he was so inspired that he forced his dad to drive with him to try and find Rittikrai. Once they tracked him down, Jaa threatened to kill himself if his family wouldn’t allow him to Rittkirai. The master told the potential student that he must first go back to school, and so he did, but Jaa did finally get his wish and joined the P.P.N Stunt Team.

Rittikrai worked with Jaa on all of his films prior to Jaa’s temporary retirement after Ong Bak 3. The most notable are Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong (aka The Protector), which between them helped Tony Jaa become a break out star in both Thailand and ultimately abroad.

These two films changed the way that filmmakers approached martial arts and stunt work as well as what audiences would come to expect from them. Rittikrai upped the ante. He showed, vividly, that seemingly impossible feats could be achieved without the use of wires or CGI. One again, his work was inspiring a great many people.

One of these is Gareth Evans, the director of The Raid.

Following a falling out with Jaa during the troubled production of Ong Bak 3, Rittikrai directed BKO: Bangkok Knockout, a film that shared many of the themes and much of the approach of the two Born to Fight film. The plot and acting may be a little shaky at times but the action in Bangkok Knockout left me with my jaw on the floor.

The fluid editing and astute attention to how best to frame the action in Bangkok Knockout works so well to showcase a number of stunning action feats and stunts that so often defy belief. I’ll admit that I must have watched the trailer for Bangkok Knockout at least twenty or thirty times before the film was released. I could never quite believe what I was seeing.

And the film certainly didn’t disappoint, despite those high expectations.

Rittikrai’s final credit looks set to be his work as action co-ordinator on A Man Will Rise, a feature film starring Dolph Lundgren and Jaa.

The treatment of Rittikrai’s films on DVD and Blu-ray has resulted in a very mixed bag but if you’re looking to dive into some of his work, the bigger films are reasonably easy to see on Blu-ray, DVD and Netflix, and the original Born to Fight also received a rather fine DVD release in the UK.

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