The ironies keep piling up alongside the dead bodies in the pacey and preposterous man-on-the-run thriller “The Prey.” Gallic helmer Eric Valette (“State Affairs”) invests this giddily implausible crime yarn with a propulsive sense of energy, much of it derived from Albert Dupontel’s impressively physical turn as a bank robber whose escape from prison sets off an unpredictable whirlwind of violent mayhem. A 2011 French release making a belated Stateside bow, the film seems unlikely to travel much farther but could snare quite a few fans as a vigorous VOD item; remake potential is considerable.
“I don’t do trust,” Franck Adrien (Dupontel) says more than once, and it serves not only as a handy bit of character description but a clue as to how to watch “The Prey.” Almost every character in this harrowing story — good, bad or somewhere in between — has at least one occasion to hide the truth of who they really are, and much of the film’s tension derives from the audience’s awareness of these identities even as most of the characters remain ignorant.
Laurent Turner and Luc Bossi’s script gets its hooks in almost immediately, establishing a taut scenario in which the viewer’s sympathies are deftly established and manipulated. Franck, about to be released from prison, is eager to return home to his wife (Caterina Murino), their young daughter (Jaia Caltagirone) and the stolen loot he’s kept carefully stashed away for years. But Franck sets himself back several months when he heroically intervenes and saves his shy, nebbishy cellmate, Maurel (Stephane Debac), from being brutally beaten by other inmates and corrupt guards. It’s a decision he will come to regret for more reasons than one; Franck soon realizes his family is in terrible danger on the outside and, taking advantage of another vicious attack, he manages to escape.
Assigned to track him down is Claire (Alice Taglioni), a smart but fresh-faced detective who relies on her “feminine intuition” and sometimes has difficulty pulling the trigger, attracting much condescension from her superior officer that will, of course, be redeemed by the closing reels. A trail of corpses and other pieces of evidence raise the suspicion that Franck is not just a bank robber, but a serial killer terrorizing young women in the scenic Alpes-Maritime region (where much of the film was shot). Also figuring into the hunt is an ex-gendarme (the dependable Sergi Lopez) with a highly personal stake in catching the murderer.
Relying heavily on lurid contrivances, sneaky narrative reversals and plot grabs from any number of other cop thrillers, “The Prey” — whose title changes meanings with alarming regularity — is an absurdly gripping experience, achieving an ideal balance of crafty storytelling and fleet, unfussy direction. Not unlike its fugitive protagonist, the picture moves so swiftly that the viewer scarcely has time to pause, much less object, and Valette demonstrates a real flair for staging straight-up, no-nonsense setpieces and keeping them coming steadily over the course of 105 minutes.
Playing the victim of a classic Hitchcockian wrong-man scenario, Dupontel is terrific as the sort of improbable middle-aged action hero who, using decisive actions and few words, gets the viewer on his side immediately. While Franck is not averse to hurling himself out windows or leaping onto moving trains in this parkour-lite entertainment, he sustains more than a few wounds along the way, adding a necessary shot of realism to the proceedings. Other performances are fine across the board, particularly Natacha Regnier’s gentle, unobtrusive turn as Maurel’s wife, which perhaps most ingeniously embodies the film’s implicit “trust no one” directive.
Technically, the film is aided considerably by Vincent Mathias’ capable widescreen lensing of a little-seen French region, particularly a hedge-lined suburban neighborhood that offers ample opportunities for concealment and pursuit. Noko’s score adds memorably to the film’s sense of gathering momentum.