“The Prey” takes the classic “The Most Dangerous Game” scenario for a spin in the Cambodian jungle. Centered on a wrongly jailed cop being stalked by cashed-up creeps who get their kicks by hunting humans, this survival thriller doesn’t bring anything significantly new to the table but the frequency and quality of its gunplay and martial arts combat should keep most action fans happy. Directed, edited and co-written by Italian expat Jimmy Henderson, whose 2017 prison smackdown “Jailbreak” marked him as a talent to watch and was snapped up by Netflix, “The Prey” debuted at the Busan Film Fetival in 2018 and will open in select North American virtual cinemas on Aug. 21. VOD streaming commences on August 25.
Trumpeted as Cambodia’s first million-dollar action movie, “The Prey” can’t match “Jailbreak” for sheer excitement but does suggest that with more original and ambitious material Henderson could become a real force in Asian genre cinema. Audiences will next have the opportunity to check on Henderson’s progress when release details are confirmed for his recently completed boxing drama “The Guardian” (aka “Patron Saint: Desperate Rescue”). Plans to shoot a sequel to “Jailbreak” in 2021 have also been announced.
This variation on the tale that’s driven everything from Cornel Wilde’s Oscar-nominated “The Naked Prey” (1965) to Craig Zobel’s controversial “The Hunt” earlier this year kicks off in Phnom Penh, where undercover Interpol agent Xin (Gu Shang Wei) has infiltrated a cyber-crime syndicate. When cops raid the gang’s headquarters, Xin’s arrested and transported to Western Region Penitentiary, a hellhole located in a fictional DMZ some 125 miles from the Cambodian capital. The Chinese detective barely has time to activate a tracking device before he’s handed over to the prison’s boss, identified only as “the Warden” (Vithaya Pansingarm).
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Adding to his impressive résumé of sinister authority figures, Thai actor Pansingarm (“A Prayer Before Dawn,” “Only God Forgives”) hams it up enjoyably as the jailer. Swaying along to country rock music while zapping Xin with electric shocks, the smiling sadist says he wants to see what happens “when a man becomes an animal.”
The early highlight is an exercise yard brawl instigated by the warden to help clients select victims for a manhunt he’s arranged. Forking out a small fortune for what the warden describes as “the best damn afternoon money can buy” are macho man Mat (Byron Bishop), his mentally unstable nephew “T” (Nophand Boonyai) and their sneering buddy Payuk (Sahajak Boonthankit). These guys all look the part but no clues are offered as to where they came from or what makes their twisted minds tick.
Character depth and complex motives are not high on the agenda here. Stalking, stabbing, shooting and fistfights are the order of the day once Xin and fellow inmate Mony (Rous Mony), a stocky and cynical thief, survive the initial slaughter and gradually turn the tables on the hunters. Henderson rarely lets the pace drag and pulls off some eye-catching sequences including a battle to the death in river rapids and an encounter involving a leather belt.
The screenplay by Henderson and his “Jailbreak” co-writers Kai Miller and Michael Hodgson hits the right basic notes but falls short on the fringes. It’s visually interesting for T to be experiencing severe hallucinations but it’s not clear why his mind is in such a state. Nor is it adequately explained whether villager Chay (Sarin Preap) and his mute son Sombath (Nget Kakada) have strayed into the area as innocent bystanders or are have some connection to a drug manufacturing operation which seems to be run by the warden.
Most disappointing is the nothing role of Chinese Interpol agent Li (Dy Sonita), who’s captured almost as soon as she and bureau chief Wong (Jia Lee) arrive to rescue Xin. It makes no sense for the bad guys to keep Li alive after they execute Wong, and she has very little to do thereafter.
Though short on movie-star charisma, Gu (“Bloody Destiny”) is a highly accomplished fighter and has an earnest, everyman appeal that will keep viewers rooting for him. Leading Cambodian actor Mony (“The Last Reel,” “Buoyancy”) registers strongly as Xin’s inevitably doomed comrade.
Even with its shortcomings, “The Prey” delivers decent suspense and a solid quota of thrills. The action is imaginatively photographed by experienced documentary cameraman Lucas Gath, and Sebastien Pan’s percussive score adds plenty of menace to the jungle locale.