By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
Not known for their cinematic output, Cambodia make a pretty good attempt at getting the movie world’s attention with the wild martial arts extravaganza Jailbreak, and although it doesn’t hit a resounding bullseye, it supplies sufficient thrills and spills to make one look forward to seeing what this burgeoning film industry delivers next.
The plot is very simple. An experienced agent from Paris, Jean-Paul (Jean-Paul Ly) arrives in Cambodia to oversee the delivery of a high profile criminal, amusingly named Playboy (Savin Phillip), to Prei Klaa maximum security prison. Playboy is being taken there for his own protection, as he is about to testify against Madame Butterfly (Celine Tran) and her gang, of which he used to be a member. Butterfly wants Playboy dead before he can spill the beans, and already has a plan in motion to put him out of action for good.
Accompanying Ly are Special Task Force officers Dara (Dara Our), Tharoth (Tharoth Sam), and Sucheat (Dara Phang), all of whom possess exemplary fighting skills, largely using the traditional art of Bokator. The delivery goes smoothly, but when intimidating prison inmate Bolo (Sisowath Siriwudd) and his numerous cronies escape their confines, as part of Madame Butterfly’s assassination plot, the group are suddenly under siege, having to take on multiple opponents as they try to not only get their key witness to safety, but themselves as well.
One has to have a little patience and leeway with Jailbreak, as its introductory scenes and dialogue are flimsy and relatively lifeless. The main four protagonists, all celebrated athletes, stuntmen, or fight choreographers, of course aren’t trained thespians, so one will have to give them time to make the transition from the ring to the big screen. Despite the awkward line readings and dramatic imperfections, there are genuine, individual personalities on display, and if they are able to improve their acting abilities, we could be witnessing more than one action star on the rise.
Ly and Our, who also choreographed the numerous fight scenes, do their best to play off each other, and at least create likeable-enough characters. Phang, and particularly Phillip, supply most of the comic relief, but the former does show he is also quick with his fists and feet. Stealing the film however is Sam, who is dynamic as the sole female officer. Approachable and amiable when required, this MMA competitor is lightning fast, and there is never any doubt she can take several bulky prisoners down. Tran effectively blends malice and mirth as Madame Butterfly, and provides some of the film’s funnier moments, but it’s a pity she doesn’t get to literally join in on the action until near the end of the film.
Co-editor/co-writer/director Jimmy Henderson (Hanuman, The Forest Whispers), an Italian expatriate who moved to Cambodia in 2011, attacks the genre with energy and confidence. The script by he and Michael Hodgson is undeniably thin (hampered too by a very abrupt ending), borrowing liberally from a number of recent hits, including Gareth Huw Evans’ incredible The Raid (2011) and its ambitious 2014 sequel, Prachya Pinkaew’s hugely popular Ong-Bak (2003), and quite specifically the eye-popping riot sequence in Soi Cheang’s entertaining SPL: A Time For Consequences (2015). The initial set-up is noticeably similar to films such as Clint Eastwood’s The Gauntlet (1977) and Richard Donner’s 16 Blocks (2006), but the two are doing nothing more than setting up a basic framework, which they can then attach a multitude of action set-pieces to, and this is where their efforts succeed the most. The head inmate’s name is a nice homage to a certain Bruce Lee blockbuster.
Teaming with up-and-coming cinematographer Godefroy Ryckewaert, Henderson shoots the non-stop action with amazing clarity, allowing the audience to witness the uninhibited mayhem in all its exhausting, bone-crunching detail. With Hollywood action film-makers relying so heavily on quick cuts, close-ups, and shaky-cam, it is so refreshing to be able see the action unfolding on screen. Your eyes are given the opportunity to study every inch of the screen, and the result is the kind of exhilaration that is missing from so many action movies today. It must be said too that safety standards are somewhat relaxed, with numerous blows connecting to their various targets. Ryckewaert’s agile camera moves would make even Dario Argento proud.
Finally, it must be stated that there are two versions of the film. The Cambodian version runs 101 minutes, with more local flavour, humour, and celebrity cameos, while the international version is 92 minutes, excising most of these regionally specific moments to focus solely on the main plot. Hopefully down the track both versions will be available to watch.
Jailbreak should please fans of the martial arts genre, many of whom will overlook its many shortcomings, but there is enough here to warrant attention from a larger action audience. Containing a number of legitimately exciting action sequences, expertly shot by a talented, enthusiastic crew, and carried out by an impressive on-screen team who have the chance of becoming future action superstars, this is the kind of honest, old-school film-making (made on a minuscule $260,000) that supplies more entertainment value than many large-scale productions who have hundreds of millions of dollars at their disposal.