Dir: Jimmy Henderson
Ong-Bak popularised martial arts films and stars from Thailand. The Raid followed suit for Indonesia and now Jailbreak, which sticks resolutely to the template laid down by The Raid, seems to be attempting to do the same for Cambodia. It may well succeed.
The plot is incredibly simple. 4 cops (Jean-Paul Ly, Dara Our, Tharoth Sam and Dara Phang) have to escort Playboy (Savin Phillip), a mobster who is turning on his otherwise all female gang, to jail. Playboy's former boss, Madame Butterfly (Celine Tran), has other ideas and gets someone on the inside to instigate a jailbreak, forcing the cops to fight for their lives and Playboy's.
The structure may be skeletal, but it's all a film like this needs. What the script has to deliver here is a reasonable series of excuses to set up increasingly spectacular fights. In this respect it largely delivers. The pieces are set within 25 minutes and for the last hour or so director Jimmy Henderson is free to let his actors cut loose, showing off Cambodian martial arts style Bokator. Bokator is an impactful style, it looks (as a character observes early on) a little like Muay Thai, with its emphasis on using arms and elbows, legs and knees more than fists and feet. The choreography, however, definitely has a distinctive flavour about it.
Jailbreak sets out its stall right from the first fight scene, a huge brawl just as the prisoners begin to escape their cells. Henderson allows the camera to be dynamic, but he never lets that get in the way of our being able to see the action well and he keeps the geography of the scene intact while following four different sets of fights, which sometimes overlap. While all the fights are impressive the begin to lack variation as the film goes on. The drab setting doesn't help, but it would be nice to see something different from fight to fight; a shift in style, more extensive prop use. When we do get this - when Jean-Paul takes out some prisoners with a machete after they attempt to rape Tharoth, or Tharoth, wielding a pipe, facing off against Madame Butterfly with her sword - these are the fights that stand out, but after that first massed brawl there's not many places the film can take that type of scene.
The overriding problem with the version of Jailbreak that I saw (through the LFF's online screener service for critics) was the subtitling. We hear three languages in the film; Khmer, French and English. The Khmer wass - mostly - subtitled in English (though there are disastrous moments of dropout, one exchange goes: "you want Playboy dead?" "yes" [unsubtitled line] "Deal"). The French, however, had English subtitles perhaps twenty percent of the time, with many lines that were translated being cut off midway through. The same went for the French subtitling of English dialogue, but to an even more haphazard degree. Of course the plot isn't the most important thing here, but going through whole conversations in French that have one line subtitled is incredibly frustrating. I hope that this problem is fixed for the public screenings and any future release.
Jailbreak is basic stuff and, with that caveat, it works. The fights are strong throughout and Jean-Paul Ly, Dara Our and Tharoth Sam all impress enough that I'd like to see them in further projects, perhaps with more developed screenplays. Celine Tran has enough presence as Madame Butterfly that it's a pity she's not featured more. The film leaves off on a note that seems to invite a sequel, which I would expect will take the Raid 2 route of expanding from the single location we see here. this is no masterpiece, but if we get to see this cast again and bring some more variety to both the setting and the fights, I'm there for the next film.