Fantasia 2017 Review: JAILBREAK, An Exceptional Addition to Martial Arts Cinema Coming Out of Southeast Asia.
A group of Special Task Force Officers are escorting Playboy, a reported crime boss of the Butterfly Gang to Prei Klaa prison. Playboy though, claims that he is not the true boss and will reveal their identity when he is safely escorted out of danger. The true boss of the gang, the Madame, has people on the inside and will do whatever it takes to silence him before he reveals her identity. The simple escort mission turns into chaos when the prisoners take over the prison grounds. Trapped in the building, four cops and a prison guard will have to protect Playboy and fight their way out for survival, or die trying.
The story in Jailbreak is very straight forward, if not a wee bit familiar by now. Our heroes are trapped in a building, surrounded by a bunch of people who really, really do not like them. They must move from one room to another, protecting their prisoner from those hired to get rid of him, and protecting themselves from people who have a long standing issue with authority. Varying levels of threat exist from mobs, to gangs, to the resident cannibal. And our team takes them all on, in a group, in pairs and on their own sometimes.
Technically Jailbreak is tremendous. The choreography is top shelf and Jimmy Henderson and his camera crew do one of the best jobs I have ever seen capturing and following the action. In particular, an early mele with our heroes pits the five of them against at least three dozen prisoners and every hero has a moment to hand a few of them their asses. And it is perceived to be one cut that moves from one round to the next with the camera catching everything. The camera goes high and follows the action down to the floor then simply sweeps along to floor to the next hero and we watch them deal with some prisoners’ anger issues. It is fluid camerawork to be certain.
I would have liked to have seen a bit of a mix in the scenery though. The hallways and rooms do become repetitive. When Jean-Paul, the visiting cop from Paris, and Tharoth are walking down one hallway and they comment that they think that they have been there before? Yeah. I would agree. Perhaps if Henderson had tried to take the fight outside for a bit of fresh air; a brawl in the exercise yard would have changed it up a bit and my eyes would not have started to lose focus because everything looks the same. At the end there is an external shot of the prison and there were a lot of places this fight could have gone to. I understand that this was likely a small production, some of the walls had a little too much give if you know what I mean, but even given a brief glimpse of freedom only to have it taken away would have made the scenario more dire for our heroes.
The violence is not as extreme when compared to action cinema from other countries in the region there are still a couple moments worthy of shouts of awe. A particular scene with a machete running up a prisoner’s body still lingers in the mind. The bulk of the action is hand to hand combat and a showcase of Cambodia’s martial art Bokator, which by appearances shares a lot of the fundamentals of Muay Thai. Dara Our climbs up more than one prisoner during the fights to deliver elbows to the tops of their heads. Break it down and it means lots and lots of limbs go a twirling and nothing pleases me more than some terrific hand to hand combat.
Billed early on in its promotion as an action comedy film I found out this week that this international cut is about ten minutes than the Cambodian cut. Now do not fret or get excited because the ten minutes was mostly regional related material and that may count for a fair amount of comedy. There were also some local cameos that are in that cut that would not make sense to anyone else outside the country. I for one would like to see this cut and see if I get the jokes.
Let us talk about the women in Jailbreak. First we can talk about the two main female characters Celine Tran and Tharoth Sam. So. You may or may not know that Tran made the transition from an earlier career in adult entertainment (you do you just don’t want to admit it) and a short film last year showed that she has some credible action chops. She gets to show off more of those skills in an endgame face off with Tharoth near the climax. She displayed tremendous ability to handle the choreography and swordplay. She really is impressive in this face-off between the two ladies. I did wish for her that she had more action screen time in the film. Another scene midway through the film of her doing some action would have only cemented her role as the bigger villain in all of these.
I am less familiar with Tharoth Sam, simply because Cambodia is in the early stages of showcasing their action talents. Tharoth is a member of the National Bokator Team, Cambodia’s martial art, and is a powder keg on screen. More than capable of holding her own, her character Tharoth (keeping it simple) is in the mix right along with the boys.
As exceptional as those two are, sadly there are collection of ladies that the Madame brings along to the fight who are nothing more than male wish fulfillment and objects of fantasy. They are a handful of beautiful women who are dressed for the runway in tight everything, and do nothing more than walk in unison with Tran’s Madame as she enters the prison, with the gratuitous bum shots, brandishing different melee weapons. They are all in high heels, the Madame, being the only sensible one and the exception, has some light boots on. It was just unfortunate to see this because they are never seen again until the end, barring some minor distres like they have been fighting elsewhere in the prison all that time. They are there to do nothing except brighten the scenery. Which is true. Not going to lie, it pushed some buttons for me but in reality their wafer thin roles are a shame and a detriment to everyone’s hard work on what is a terrific action film. This is a tired trope of the genre.
For everything that I am nit-picking about, and I do so because I love action cinema so much, Jailbreak is still a remarkable accomplishment for a country that is not known for a high international output in the genre. It should though, make everyone stand up and take notice. Neighbouring Thailand and Indonesia should realize that there is a new kid in town and they have run out of bubblegum.
Directors take note. Jimmy Henderson has made a master stroke in capturing martial arts action on film. He has studied those who have come before him and built on that. The camera follows the action concisely and the transitions from one melee to the next one beside it are nearly flawless. One presumes that work of Evans and Flannery in their Raid films was an influence as the camera does a couple physics bending movements. But I am still amazed as to how well Henderson and his crew followed the choreography throughout.
This is me, giving a standing ovation.