Cambodian commercial cinema takes a big stride forward with “Jailbreak,” an exciting, all-out action extravaganza about elite cops trapped in a prison during a mass breakout. Stylishly directed by Italian expat Jimmy Henderson and starring Cambodian martial arts wizards including female dynamo Tharoth “Little Frog” Sam, “Jailbreak” was a huge domestic hit in early 2017 and brings an exciting new dimension to the recent revival of Cambodia’s film industry. Though running slightly out of narrative steam in the final furlong, this polished production draws immediate parallels with Indonesian hit “The Raid,” and has already secured sales to seven Asian territories including China and South Korea. With more distribution deals in the works, “Jailbreak” has a highly promising international future.
Even during the 1960s and early ’70s Golden Age of Cambodian cinema, only a tiny handful of films featured any significant martial arts action. All that changes dramatically with “Jailbreak.” On show here is the national fighting discipline of bokator, a “knees and elbows” style that all but vanished during Khmer Rouge rule and subsequent Vietnamese occupation before re-emerging in the early 2000s.
Following his 2015 crime thriller “Hanuman” and last year’s rural ghost story “The Forest Whispers,” Henderson’s third Cambodian feature is his most ambitious and most satisfying. With invaluable contributions by DP Godefroy Ryckewaert and choreographers-stars Dara Our and Jean-Paul Ly (a stunt performer and action coordinator with credits including “Doctor Strange” and “Lucy”), Henderson delivers top-notch combat in the cramped confines of prison cells and corridors. Impressively, much of the fighting is shot with full bodies in frame and assembled with minimal editing, allowing viewers to marvel at unadulterated images of amazing physical maneuvers.
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The no-nonsense story gets underway with notorious crook Playboy (Savin Phillip, the villain in “Hanuman”) being arrested and transported to a high-security prison. Cops assigned to the supposedly simple task are clean-cut Dara (Our, “Hanuman”); Sucheat (Dara Phang), a pony-tailed livewire; Tharoth (Sam), a charismatic young woman who takes no crap from anyone, and Inspector Ly (Ly), a cool and handsome French-Cambodian officer.
No sooner is Playboy delivered than inmates start busting out of cells. Pulling the strings from afar is Madame Butterfly (Celine Tran, formerly known as adult film star Katsuni), a slinky, sword-wielding type who’s put out a contract on business partner Playboy after getting word he’s about to squeal. With the classic set-up of cops having to fight for their own lives while also protecting a scumbag who’s still officially innocent, “Jailbreak” settles in for a solid hour’s worth of virtually nonstop battle.
Henderson and co-writer Michael Hodgson do a pretty good job of mixing things up. The cops encounter a colorful gallery of featured badasses. Siriwudd Sisowath (a member of the Cambodian royal house of Sisowath) is terrific as brawny bruiser Bolo. Internationally known actor Ruos Mony (“Ruin,” “The Last Reel”) makes a brief but memorable appearance as Snake, a vicious psycho. A one-on-one fight highlight is Ly’s showdown with “Suicide,” a hulking brute played by fellow actor-stuntman Laurent Plancel.
Throwaway visual gags and one-liners are mostly funny. Amusing at first but less successful later are Playboy’s cowardly attempts at avoiding trouble. A fabulous sight when introduced but never quite fulfilling their promise are the members of Butterfly’s squad of leather-clad female assassins.
But these are minor quibbles in the overall scheme of things. The day belongs to Henderson’s high-energy direction and an appealing central cast that deliver credible dramatic performances alongside dynamic physical feats. Production design is a little ragged around the edges. The bouncy score by composer Fabio Guglielmo Anastasi features everything from crunching electronic beats to full-blooded orchestral arrangements. All other technical work is of a high standard on a tight budget.