'Jailbreak': Film Review | Filmart 2017

Courtesy of Kongchak Pictures
A bone-crunching breakthrough for Cambodian cinema.

Cambodia's best martial artists star in Jimmy Henderson's prison-set action thriller.

Thailand has its Ong Bak; Indonesia can boast of The Raid. Now it’s Cambodia’s turn to deliver some homegrown hard-knuckle action with Jailbreak, an overwhelmingly high-octane prison thriller starring the country’s top martial artists — among them a national MMA champion and a stuntman who worked on Lucy and Doctor Strange.

When one of Jailbreak’s characters speaks of how they would fight their way out in a “old-school” style, he could easily have been talking about the film in general. With barely a gun in sight, Jailbreak — like The Raid before it — is mano a mano from beginning to end, with the unarmed combat sometimes spiced up by some very imaginative use of ordinary objects.

Having premiered at home before traveling to Hong Kong’s Filmart and then Udine’s Far East Film Festival, Jailbreak could very well be a sign of the variety within Cambodia’s budding film industry today — a breakthrough, at the very least, for its photogenic and dexterous stars.

Jailbreak begins as a four-strong crack police team — comprising three locals (played by Dara Our, Dara Phang and the female MMA prize-winner Tharoth Sam) plus a French Cambodian officer (Jean-Paul Ly) — escort a recently arrested mobster named Playboy (Savin Phillip) to a high-security prison. The seemingly low-risk assignment quickly turns ugly, however, as they find themselves caught in the middle of a jailbreak — a state of chaos orchestrated from the outside by Madame Butterfly (Celine Tran), a sword-wielding gangster seeking to prevent Playboy from dishing the dirt on her illicit activities.

What follows is an hour of near-ceaseless running battles between the cops and the convicts, with two extreme and erstwhile solitarily confined fiends (named Cannibal and Suicide) thrown in for good measure. Making his third film in Cambodia, Italian director Jimmy Henderson works well with his DP Godefroy Ryckewaert and choreographer-actors Ly and Dara Our in making effective use of both bodies and space. Or the lack of it, that is: The filmmakers cannily make use of the potential offered by the different confines of spaces one might find in a jail, as characters fight and founder in the cells, the corridors, the toilets and the infirmary with all its medical apparatus.

Without the structural thematics of, say, The Raid — where its protagonist fights his way, a story at a time, up a skyscraper — Jailbreak begins to sag in the final third, as Henderson and his co-writer Michael Hodgson throw in ever more distracting elements to the proceedings. The slapstick comedy, embodied mostly in Playboy’s whiny witticisms, wears off pretty quickly, while Madame Butterfly’s gang — young women all dressed in tight leather wear — run the risk of canceling out Tharoth Sam’s gender-bending turn as a sane, self-empowering fighter.

Having left enough loose ends for a sequel, Henderson could easily make up for this film’s old-school flaws in the near future. In the here and now, however, Jailbreak remains some kind of a watershed, a powerful and visceral showcase of the talent and technical expertise Cambodian cinema has to offer.

Production company: Kongchak Pictures
Cast: Jean-Paul Ly, Dara Our, Tharoth Sam, Celine Tran, Dara Phang
Director: Jimmy Henderson
Screenwriters: Jimmy Henderson, Michael Hodgson
Producer: Loy Te
Executive producer: Michael Chai
Director of photography: Godefroy Ryckwaert
Production designer: Mout Iv
Costume designer: Remy Hou
Music: Kmeng Khmer
Venue: Filmart

In Khmer, French, English and Vietnamese

92 minutes