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by Jay Seaver

"Cambodia breaks into the action-movie world."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Like a lot of action flicks from places that don't export a whole lot of movies, "Jailbreak" shows that there are a fair number of folks in Cambodia who know some martial arts and aren't particularly concerned with the safety standards other places have in place. Whether the excited reception this movie got at the festival will translate into a steady stream of Cambodian action movies or not, time will tell, but this first foray into cinematic mayhem is a high-energy hoot.

As it opens, the local authorities have just captured "Playboy" (Savin Philip), the presumed leader of the Butterfly Gang, and he's being transferred to Prei Klau Prison by an elite escort: Dara (Dara Our), the team leader; Sucheat (Dara Phang), just transferred from an undercover unit; Tharoth (Tharoth Sam), tough enough to hang with the guys; and Jean-Paul Ty (Jean-Paul Ly), a French GIGN agent. Of course, Playboy being the actual leader of an all-female gang rather than just the money man is unlikely, and he's ready to roll on Madame Butterfly (Celine Tran), and knowing this, she's made it known to Scorpion Gang leader Bolo (Sisowath Siriwudd) that there's a price on Playboy's head and an opportunity for a breakout. There are, of course, a whole ton of Scorpions in this prison, and Playboy is supposed to be locked up with the worst of the worst.

This may be giving the plot a bit more credit than it deserves. It's basically twenty minutes of enough exposition for the cops to be more than "the girl", "the guy with the beard", and the like, and then all hell breaking loose. Once things get started, the movie is basically one brawl after another, as the cops are constantly outnumbered by less-skilled but more numerous prisoners, and they just keep going, knocking each other around, throwing the occasional knife into it, and every once in a while going for a one-on-one with a featured heavy. Director Jimmy Henderson and his co-writer Michael Hodgson don't clutter things up with a lot of complexity or worries about people switching sides, but they're good at splitting the group up and bringing it together to make for good fights, and not cheating too badly with the geography of the place. It's not the detailed, obviously creative choreography you'd see from Jackie Chan or Donnie Yen, but it's busy and exciting without overloading the audience.

Similarly, a lot of the cast is fairly new to both acting and martial-arts, kind of like when Marko Zaror was starting from scratch in Chile and had to put co-stars through a sort of boot camp. As a result, the cast is kind of rough around the edges, especially when scenes have to switch between Khmer, French, and English to accommodate them. Still, the central group of Dara Our, Tharoth Sam, Jean-Paul Ty, and Dara Phang are more than good enough, showing a comfortable camaraderie without just grunting tough-guy lines at each other, and they all handle the physical parts of the job very well indeed. The villains generally don't have the same acting chops, but make up for it by going big and colorful, with Savin Phillip's craven smarm as Playboy just a sort of appetizer before the really nasty guys show up, all the way to Eh Phoutong as the inevitable giant cannibal and the assault by runway models carrying submachine guns. Sure, it's easy enough to snort at stuff like the all-female gang that goes in for more spike heel/push-up/leather pants combos than really makes sense for their work, but a lot of it plays as enthusiastic pulp rather than our exploitation.

And sometimes, the fact that there aren't a whole lot of established rules or particular desire for respectability here works in the filmmakers' favor. There is a lot of people getting tossed around in ways that can't easily be faked and long shots that leave no doubt that blows are connecting, and the occasional moment when they go to town with the fake blood. Plus, perhaps most impressively, the camera work by cinematographer G Ryckewaert and his team is kind of nuts: It weaves in and out of fights, sometimes being bowled over and having to right itself as combatants get too close, but eventually feeling like it's being improvised well. For a movie featuring a lot of action in enclosed spaces, it's amazing how well they put the viewer in the middle of things without ever feeling boxed in.

Eventually, they'll probably figure out how everyone else does things, and the best talent will get poached by Hollywood or China, but for now, "Jailbreak" is an action flick that feels incredibly fresh despite having one of the most well-worn plots that this sort of thing can have. You don't see its like every day, and it's more big-screen-worthy than a lot of movies that have a lot more thrown at it.

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originally posted: 11/14/17 01:20:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
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