Jailbreak (2017)

Directed by
Cambodia's Raid-a-like takes no prisoners
Reviewed by Simon on 2021-12-04

The leader of Phnom Penh's most famous criminal gang, Playboy, is arrested and agrees to turn state's witness, promising to reveal the real power behind the gang. A squad of cops escorts him to jail, with a visiting French cop tagging along for the ride. The gang's true leader offers a bounty for anyone who stops Playboy from squealing.

JAILBREAK is Cambodia's contribution to the Raid-a-like subgenre, films inspired by the elegant brutality of Indonesia's The Raid: Redemption and Thailand's Ong Bak before it, films which showcase the country's native martial arts and the simple pleasure of watching a team of stuntmen and fighters do their thing uninhibited by Hollywood rules and habits.

Like The Raid the director is foreign, Italian-born Jimmy Henderson, who met French-Cambodian stuntman Jean-Paul Ly and concocted the idea of a Cambodian martial arts film. The film industry in Cambodia barely existed prior to Jailbreak, local movies were no-budget junk with no hope of screening overseas and little respect at home - when I suggested going to watch one to some locals in 2009 I think they literally fell off their chairs laughing at the idea. The lack of infrastructure and experience meant that Henderson and team had to train the local crew from scratch for months to prepare for the shoot.

Given that it's impressive how slick the film is - particularly in the numerous fight scenes that feature complex choreography and long takes, where the camera weaves fluidly around and amongst the fighters to track the action. The choreography is clearly influenced by The Raid and Ong Bak but has something of its own style as well.

The cast includes a handful of real martial artists, including the extremely talented Jean-Paul Ly and the ridiculously cute Dara Our, who looks so sweet and innocent even as he's breaking heads. MMA fighter Tharoth Sam is at least as impressive as her male colleagues. There are a few other experienced fighters but most of the cast are played by locals with no prior experience but a willingness to learn, and to suffer some pain for the project.

Like The Raid, budget constraints mean the film doesn't waste much time on setup or extraneous details, and like The Raid it is all the better for it - lean and focussed, spending its energy where it matters the most. Jailbreak does have a lighter tone than its relentlessly grim predecessor, with a couple of comic relief characters and gags. I like the way those moments break up the intensity of the action but others find them unwelcome - including Jean-Paul Ly apparently, who wanted the film to be more violent like The Raid but was forced to to inject some comedy by the producers.

JAILBREAK was my favourite film at the 2017 London Film Festival, and rewatching it on bluray it is no less fun. There are moments where the lack of experience shows - e.g. some dialogue delivered in English by Cambodian cast members that doesn't land, but it never significantly harms the film's fun factor. It seems to have gone a little unnoticed despite being available on Netflix - fans of martial arts cinema owe it to themselves to check it out if they haven't seen it already.

Special shout out to Sharky Bar, instantly recognisable in one early scene. The place is a shadow of its former self since long time owner "Big Mike" died in 2016, but I spent way too many evenings in there in the past, a true Phnom Penh institution and an important part of my youth.