One-note plot. A whole symphony of ass-kicking mayhem.
The Butterflies are but one gang running roughshod over the laws of the land, but the police have finally caught a break. The gang’s money man, Playboy (Savin Phillip), has been arrested and convinced to testify against the group’s leader, Madame Butterfly (Celine Tran). A unit of four police officers including a visiting French/Cambodian cop (Jean-Paul Ly) are tasked with escorting the witness to a temporary jail cell home, but before they can exit its walls a riot breaks out as cover for a hit on Playboy’s life. Trapped inside and surrounded by very bad men, the quartet must fight to both survive and save their star witness from being silenced forever.
Cambodia has never really been part of the “action cinema” discussion, but that changes now with the release of Jimmy Henderson‘s fun and thrilling Jailbreak. The film’s premise is even simpler than The Raid‘s but like that gem it delivers its one-note tale with brutal action, endlessly impressive fights, and more than a few laughs. Think the prison riot scenes in SPL 2 and Fate of the Furious but simultaneously pared down and stretched to feature length — there’s no wire-work or CG assists here as it’s instead ninety minutes filled with breathless, sweaty, expertly-executed fight scenes.
Henderson (himself a cinematographer) and director of photography G Ryckewaert (making his feature debut) capture the action in wide shots with a frequently moving camera that brings viewers in and out of the brawls. The edits are functional and never detract from the visual splendor of the ass-kickery unfolding onscreen, and the result is a film guaranteed to delight action fans and leave audiences cheering.
You may not know it, but you’ve already enjoyed Ly’s work on the big screen as a stunt performer in films like Lucy, Doctor Strange, and The Brothers Grimsby, but his debut as a feature performer promises an exciting career to follow. He’s a deceptively calming presence capable of shifting instantly into a vicious and awe-inspiring fighter. The rest of the team is equally impressive as Dara Our, Dara Phang, and Tharoth Sam prove their skills repeatedly against an increasing number of foes. Ly and Our pull double duty as action choreographers, and the result is some wonderfully intricate and brutal fights that see fists, feet, and blades flailing with deadly accuracy. Sam is every bit the standout as like Ly she makes her feature role debut here. She’s a national MMA champion and proves herself a highly-skilled onscreen fighter as well. She’s every bit as impressive as Thailand’s Jeeja Yanin, but hopefully she finds a more deserving career path than the one that saw Yanin burn out far too quickly.
There’s a roughness to the performances due as much to the players switching between Khmer, French, and English as it is to their amateur status as actors. It’s hardly a detractor from the fun though as dialogue is kept short and to the point more often than not with longer verbal exchanges being saved for the more experienced performers. The humor is a mixed bag too, but enough of it lands to lend the film a personality beyond its action credentials.
Jailbreak is the epitome of a simple action plot, but it’s executed with terrifically exciting action chops and some surprising charm. It’s a film that leaves you immediately wanting a sequel, or at the very least new films from its leads, and that’s a hefty achievement for a movie that also serves to introduce its nation’s cinema to a whole new audience. See it, love it, and clamor for more.