Fantastic Fest 2017: JAILBREAK: Cambodian Fight Film Focuses On Fun

JAILBREAK Is Not “This Year’s THE RAID”, And That’s A Good Thing

As best I know, Jailbreak is the first internationally released Cambodian feature film. That that honor gets to go to a mile-a-minute fight film loaded with heart and humor is something special. You won’t be familiar with any of the talent involved in this film either in front of or behind the camera. But with the breakout nature of Jailbreak, that is likely going to change.

Jailbreak will spend a lot of its marketing cycle being compared to Gareth Evans’ Indonesian fight film mic drop The Raid. In some ways it is a fair comparison. Western audiences are being introduced to a new martial art from a country that isn’t loaded with decades of film tradition. There’s a stripped down plot involving embattled cops fighting for their lives against hordes of criminals. There’s an intimate and bubbling energy to the fight work that’s rarely seen in Western cinema. And you’ll occasionally want to get up out of your chair and cheer at the thrilling fight choreography and performance.

But in all honesty, Jailbreak is smart enough not to attempt to go toe to toe with The Raid. More good-natured, silly, and surreal, Jailbreak is on a mission to provide audiences with relentless levels of fun. There’s a sense of humor throughout that is occasionally as broad and internationally palatable as a Jackie Chan project. There’s also a fair amount of humor that doesn’t land. But that’s okay, because as soon as our cop heroes get a break, or as soon as a joke lands flat, a new horde of escaped prisoners will be just around the corner. Jailbreak could just as easily be titled 99 Brawls In A Cell Block, and certainly made for whiplash viewing as a double feature with S. Craig Zahler’s Brawl in Cell Block 99 here at Fantastic Fest.

Writer/Director Jimmy Henderson has executed something special along with his producing partners that delivers a punchy and ambitious 90 minute thrill ride that never quite attains greatness, but which puts a team and a whole country on the cinematic radar. As our embattled team of cops (whose characterizations are so minimal it’s almost not even worth distinguishing them) try to protect an informant behind bars from being assassinated by a female gang called the Butterflys, they’ll get lost in the prison, and so will we. It’s more confusing than claustrophobic, and never quite has the lean narrative and sense of geography that The Raid manages. But it was also produced on a tighter budget, in less time, and featured fewer trained martial artists. Smartly, Henderson and his team played up the humor and exploitation elements to accommodate for the time and budget restraints.

Eminently rewatchable, Jailbreak heralds the arrival of exciting new talent in front of the camera (most notably female lead Tharoth Sam, who’s given the most to do as the lone female character that’s not a Butterfly), and behind. Star Jean-Paul Ly also cuts a formidable presence as the outsider cop from France who is thrust into a crazy situation. And about those hordes: Jailbreak further distinguishes itself with the kinds of fights it shows its audience. Typical mano a mano fights are largely thrown out the window here, with giant melees being the flavor of the day. It’s chaotic and frenetically captured with camerawork that puts you right in the middle of things. But it’s never that frustrating Western technique of shakey cam that obscures the goods. The camera whisks from one fighter to the next as each hero has to dispatch of 5–6 villains if they’re going to survive. But where The Raid whittles down its cast until there’s a last man standing, Jailbreak is more interested in its ensemble and never veering too far into the real-world repercussions of violence. For the most part our heroes will emerge victorious, the villains will be put in their place, and it’ll all end in a blooper reel in one final nod to Jackie Chan that endears you to the team even further than the film itself did.

Jailbreak is not as polished or slick as it could have been, but makes up for that in ambition. With the success of the film, one hopes this team will have an opportunity to put a little more shine on future output… and I’ll be first in line to see that when it happens.

And I’m Out.

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