With the decline of Hong Kong as an action film epicentre, it’s been exciting to watch other film industries step up to fill the vacuum. Marketing for Jailbreak positions it as Cambodia’s follow up to films like Thailand’s Ong Bak and Indonesia’s The Raid — a comparison begging to be made. While not quite in the same league, Jailbreak nevertheless goes all out to provide an entertainment-stuffed escapade in its own particular style.
The premise for this grind through the action pulp mill runs as follows. Playboy (Savin Phillip), presumed leader of the otherwise female-dominated Butterfly Gang is arrested. Claiming innocence, he promises to out the real leader (Céline Tran) in court if allowed to go free. A police team (Dara Our, Dara Phang, Tharoth Sam) is dispatched to transfer Playboy to prison, with visiting Paris police officer (Jean-Paul Ly) tagging along. Once at the jail, the film becomes one long prison riot as the police, together with the one prison guard (Tara Vy) who’s not an incompetent coward or a jerk, fight to save themselves and protect Playboy.
It feels like a deliberate riff on The Raid. A simple setup leading to an extended showdown in one location, with lots of fights in tight hallways and small rooms. Out-takes reveal the camera mounted in a steering wheel setup known as a Fig Rig being used, which explains why the action shooting feels so alike — the immediacy of handheld without the jerkiness, the camera whipping and weaving through the tight confines with greater clarity. The flexibility of this style is used well, for example following a falling goon as he slams to the floor before bouncing up to find one of our heroes searching for the next threat, or even having the viewing angle flip upside down at one point. It’s gratifying to see a filming method tailored specifically for action being built upon with flair.
Despite all the similarity, Jailbreak makes an effort to stake out its own identity. As Ong Bak celebrated muay thai and The Raid precursor Merantau was a tribute to the Indonesian martial art silat, Jailbreak makes the point that it’s showcasing the Cambodian martial art of bokator. Very bluntly. What sets it apart most though is a self-aware silly streak, in marked contrast to the relentless grittiness of The Raid. Can’t see that film dragging out a toilet joke for most of its running time.
Savin Phillip is clearly having a ball as the bladder-busting Playboy. The public front for the Butterfly gang, he’s held in disdain by pretty much everyone around him and knows it, but is still determined to milk his position for everything he can get. His alternating terror and bravado at the predicament he’s in sums up the movie’s tone well. Another sombre-shattering moment occurs when the Butterflies arrive at the prison to clean house, sashaying down a trashed hallway like it’s a catwalk, complete with trashy soundtrack. It’s reaching to call this an action comedy, but it’s a good call for a low budget film as it obviously is not taking itself seriously and doesn’t demand the audience do so either.
This light-heartedness helps overcome the film’s flaws. The acting is often stilted. Plot contrivances are occasionally waved at as the film races past. There are too many characters running around — rival prison gangs, lone wolf psychos, discord in the police team, the looming threat of the Butterflies. A lot of foes are dispatched without much build-up, leaving them weightless even if the action itself is great. While a few good one-on-one dust-ups take place towards the film’s end, there’s a lot of fighting against mobs of inmates early on, which gets repetitive after the hectic opening free-for-all. Get used to the dull thuds of the foley work for punching.
Given all the bash-em-ups, the violence is not all that graphic and the action has a makeshift feel appropriate to the setting. Weapons are mostly scrounged items like tea towels or bits of wood, the most advanced being police batons and the occasional blade. A gun is never fired on screen. The most violent moment, a man being dissected from groin to throat like a frog in a high school science lab, is reserved for a rapist.
There is a feminist undercurrent to the film, but it never amounts to anything coherent. The Butterflies control events and it’s implied that the gang uses Playboy to some end, but without revealing the detail it feels like they tolerate his buffoonery without reason. Perhaps the particulars were trimmed. The most effective moment is when Tharoth, sole female member of the police squad, is invited to join the Butterflies. At least having more women in the film undercuts the chick with a samurai sword trope.
Going beyond just tropes, Jailbreak even throws around specific film references. A brief glimpse of a mask calls back to director Jimmy Henderson and star Dara Our’s 2015 film Hanuman. The final line is Roger Murtaugh’s most famous quote. Most curiously, a piece of wall graffiti is so prominently framed multiple times in one scene it jogged a memory. Sure enough, that’s Finn’s stormtrooper number from Star Wars: The Force Awakens. My take? Several cast members from The Raid films popped up very briefly in The Force Awakens. Veronica Ngo (The Rebel) had a small part in The Last Jedi. Most notably, Jiang Wen and Donnie Yen had supporting roles in Rogue One. Perhaps Jailbreak is making a bid for its stars to join the ranks of Asian action actors in future Star Wars films? The marketing aiming to place it in the lineage of Hong Kong’s action successors seems more pertinent in this light.
It could simply be a joke though. So much of the rest of the film is — and that’s a good thing, as it wouldn’t hold up as a self-serious prison escape story. An entertaining ride with significant action chops, Jailbreak gets a substantial boost from its carefree, rambunctious attitude.