Director: Jimmy Henderson
Writer: Jimmy Henderson, Michael Hodgson
Cast: Jean-Paul Ly, Dara Our, Tharoth Sam, Céline Tran, Savin Phillip, Dara Phang, Sisowath Siriwudd, Laurent Plancel, Rous Mony, Sok Visal, Georgina Tan
Running Time: 92 min.
By Matija Makotoichi Tomic
Following in the footsteps of Vietnam, Indonesia, and of course, Thailand before that, it was time for Cambodia to mark its place on the international martial arts movie map. Delivering the country’s first piece of full-fledged martial arts action is Jimmy Henderson, Italian-born director who moved to Cambodia six years ago and has since found himself in the director’s chair twice; for the action thriller Hanuman and then a year later when filming the horror Forest Whispers. His latest directorial effort came as a breath of fresh air to the country’s cinema dominated mostly by romantic comedies and ghost horror stories. Seeing the talent in local martial artists, Henderson once again teamed up with his co-writer Michael Hodgson and producer Loy Te of Kongchak Pictures, and delivered action comedy that was to set a new standard for Cambodian action filmmaking.
Made with a lot of heart and a budget that couldn’t be called big even if multiplied by ten, Jailbreak was all about hard work right from the start. And while there’s no doubt about the team’s committment, low budget filmmaking usually tends to results in production shortcomings. Looking at it from that angle, Jailbreak is not without its weak points. Prei Klaa prison as the one location where most of the film’s action is taking place, is not a real one; jail bars and inmates’ uniforms, as well as the prison security system being the most obvious example, are cheap looking and can be seen as failings that might bother some. Looking from a different perspective, this only adds to the exploitation charm of the movie, along with its non-stop action structure and Butterfly gang females dressed in tight black leather.
Taking center stage of the story is Playboy, notorious criminal accused under the suspicion of running the Butterfly girl gang. When faced with the charges against him, Playboy decides to reveal the true boss’ identity, the not-so-mysterious Madame Butterfly who in exchange puts a hit out on him. After two failed attempts at Playboy’s life, first while he is still being held at the police station, and then when being escorted to the Prei Klaa prison, the hunt for his head continues within the prison walls with the prison badass Bolo taking over (yes, the name refers to the one and only Beast from the East). Special task force made of French officer supported by a local police trio has been assigned to keep Playboy safe, but once a simple hit turnes into a bloody prison riot, the team ends up fighting to save their own lives.
Starring as the leader of all female Butterfly gang is French actress Céline Tran in her first action role. Part Vietnamese on her father’s side, Tran is perhaps better known to a wider audience as Katsuni, stage name from her days in the porn industry. Katsuni received numerous awards for her work that includes more than 300 adult films, with Anal Showdown and Great Wall of Vagina being some of my picks as definitive must-sees. Being in her late thirties, Tran, a veteran in the business that still got the looks, obviously decided it’s time for a career change, and the role of whiskey-loving, katana-wielding girl boss fits her just right. Lovely Tharoth “Little Frog” Sam on the other hand has miles to go before becoming a veteran in this line of work. This charismatic Cambodian actress is a rising action star that earned her place in the industry as the first female professional MMA competitor and an expert Bokator fighter. With Jailbreak being the showcase for Bokator, Cambodian very own martial arts style, it is Sam (and her colleague Dara Our) you need to keep an eye on for busting Bokator moves.
Equally charismatic with made-to-be-a-star look is Jean-Paul Ly. Trained in Hapkido, Karate, Capoeira and specialized in acrobatic kicking, it was up to Ly to contribute to the project by bringing new ways to combine different martial arts techniques. After his notable stunt work on films such as Lucy or Now You See Me 2 for which he was nominated for 2017 Taurus Awards for best fight, Ly joined the cast of Jailbreak in his first ever lead role. Despite being born in France and located in London, Ly was somewhat an obvious choice thanks to his Chinese and Cambodian descent. As an experienced stuntman and a passionate martial artist, Jean-Paul also took charge of the film’s fight choreography, teaming up with the local martial artist and actor Dara Our.
Knowing the action being what Jailbreak is all about, Ly and Dara delivered some great, hard-hitting martial arts fighting that will have fans nod in approval. Ridden of wirework and with CGI interventions reduced to a minimum, this is martial arts action that’s always a joy to watch, even more so being that the fights were shot as wide as possible with narrow prison hallways allowing only so much space to work with. Notable is Henderson’s dynamic, creative camerawork in fight scenes. Rather than making a mess using fast cuts, camera just flows with the action, often in long takes and with focus switching from one character to another, a style maybe owed to the fact that this one camera was all the team had at their disposal.
On the bad side, some of the hits at times clearly fail to meet their target. With long takes and limited shooting time this is easily forgivable and can be attributed to the lack of experience. Extras were trained for the movie by Jean-Paul, lacking even the basic skills required, but with good will to spare. Entering the final third fights become somewhat repetitive, but keeping it at the same level of interest are fresh, new moves introduced every now and again to liven things up. One of the best fights in the movie belongs to Jean-Paul and Laurent Plancel starring in the role of Suicide and assisting in the film’s fight choreography. As professionals and friends that have already worked together, be it on short film Dead End, or a major Hollywood blockbuster that is Doctor Strange (earning nominations at the Screen Actors Guild Awards for their stunt performance), Ly and Law make it short but sweet, with a real knockout ending.
Of course, one of the selling points for any action comedy is in the way how it handles its humor, and in that department, Jailbreak works almost flawlessly. Every bit intended and of kind that is easily understandable to an international audience it takes some time to ignite, but by the time we see the escort team freezing in the back of a freezer truck on their way to prison, it’s clear there’s more to be enjoyed here than just the action. Despite the comic note that changes the overall tone, influence of The Raid is still apparent. It’s not just the idea of keeping most of the film’s action in one location, but also in the way it is delivered. Jean-Paul doesn’t hide the fact that the style of action was influenced by Gareth Evans’ masterpiece, insert of which can be seen on the prison TV.
More laughs are on the way as the closing credits roll with bloopers showing that the team had a great fun while filming, despite all the hard work they were facing while working in almost impossible conditions, shooting without air conditioners on a temperature that was well over 30 °C. Fueled on passion and with talent to spare, Jailbreak is hopefully the first of many to come. Local box-office numbers and fan support prove the job was done right and indeed, all things considering, this is a big step for Cambodian cinema and a noteworthy achievement that I’m sure fans will appreciate.
Matija Makotoichi Tomic’s Rating: 8/10