As the director and star of the Thai action classic Born to Fight, Panna Rittikrai could be credited as the man who single-handedly kick-started the trend of action cinema in Thailand. Not only did that film serve to inspire future action superstar Tony Jaa of Ong-Bak and Tom Yum Goong fame to take up fighting, but it also paved the groundwork for a collaboration between the pair that would propel both into the international spotlight.
Rittikrai got his start in the Thai film industry as a stuntman at Coliseum Films -- his first assignment being to train action starlet Sureewan Suriyong in kung fu for the film Petch Tud Yok. That position eventually led to a job as a stunt choreographer for the film Phayakyeegey, and it wasn't long before Rittikrai was stepping behind the camera to direct his debut feature, Born to Fight -- in which he also assumed a starring role. It was that film that had a life-altering effect on a young boy named Panom Yeerum. Given permission by his father to seek out Rittikrai and pursue his dream of becoming a martial arts film star, Yeerum eagerly followed through and would later be known to the world by the name Tony Jaa.
While Rittikrai and Jaa's first collaboration -- the 1994 action film Spirited Killer -- boasted impressive fighting, it didn't break any new ground stylistically and failed to reach a widespread audience. Fortunately for action fans, the pair wasn't willing to give up so easily, and nearly a decade later they resurfaced with the breathtaking Muay Thai masterpiece Ong-Bak -- for which Rittikrai served as writer and fight choreographer. A brutal breath of fresh air in a genre increasingly dominated by soulless computer-generated animation, Ong-Bak offered fight scenes that felt stunningly real and more than a little bit dangerous. 2004 was a busy year for Rittikrai, with directorial work on The Protector and a remake of his own Born to Fight preceding preparations for the eagerly anticipated Ong-Bak 2 (2008). That was followed a double shot of Ong-Bak 3 and Bangkok Knockout, both 2010.
Though he continued to work as a stunt and martial arts coordinator, Ong-Bak 3 and Bangkok Knockout were the last films he worked on as a director, producer or writer. Rittikrai died in 2014 at age 53.