In the same way that every indie horror film these days seems to be chasing the title of “This Year’s Babadook”, many Asian martial arts movies are currently gunning to be “This Year’s The Raid”. Since exploding onto the scene in 2011, the Indonesian fight-fest has led to numerous other Asian countries attempting to replicate that success, and fight movie fans are eagerly lapping up this new output. It’s apparently Cambodia’s turn at bat with Jailbreak, a martial arts action film with a less-than-subtle Raid influence. Unfortunately for eager fans searching for the next big thing in martial arts cinema, Jailbreak probably won’t be the game-changer they’re hoping for. It’s a decent enough fight film, but not so special as to really stand out.
The action begins when a local mobster called Playboy is arrested and turns on his former associates, the all-female Butterfly Gang. Playboy is transported to a maximum security prison, but the head of the Butterfly Gang has already set the wheels of his demise in motion, and a massive jailbreak is planned to cover for Playboy’s assassination. A group of police escorts transporting Playboy find themselves trapped in the prison when the product hits the fan, under attack from all sides by escaped inmates, and at odds over whether protecting Playboy is more important than saving their own skins.
So, already you can see the Raid influences. A single location crammed full of bad guys, a small unit of police who happen to be kickass martial artists; Jailbreak makes no secret of its influence, and that’s not a bad thing in and of itself. In the fight department, it could even be seen as a decent competitor to The Raid. While its inspiration dove wholeheartedly into the frenetic, shaky, rapidly-edited aesthetic characteristic of recent fight films, Jailbreak goes somewhere else.
The fights in the film are quite excellent, cleanly shot and edited so as to never obscure the obvious physical prowess of the actors, but never so much so that it becomes formally dull. In presentation and choreography, the fight scenes walk an almost-perfect line between being too complex and chaotic and just lively enough. The camera stays active, but never so active that you wish it would hold still for a second. If the fight scenes have any problem, it’s that they can get a tad monotonous. There’s not enough variety between each sequence to make any one of them stand out, and they’re all more or less variations on ‘crowd of goons show up, heroes dispatch them after a few minutes, rinse, repeat.’
It’s in the scenes in between action beats that Jailbreak stumbles, almost to its doom. While The Raid and other recent martial arts films felt stylish and interesting formally, Jailbreak’s non-action direction feels mostly dull, flat, and profoundly uninteresting. Not bad, mind you — just lacking in any sort of original flair or character. It’s almost surprising to find that the film’s helmer, Jimmy Henderson, has had previous work as a cinematographer, because the imagery in most of Jailbreak feels woefully undercooked.
Narratively, the film falls into a similar trap. The writing is fine, but never feels like it has enough character or identity. It lacks that special something, the tension and non-stop momentum of The Raid, the intricate plotting of many Hong Kong films, something to make it stand out. What that could have been is anyone’s guess, but regardless, Jailbreak fails to carve out any sort of niche in the writing department. The characters are mostly flat stock, with a pointless romantic sub-plot added in to boot.
When Jailbreak is just about flying fists and legs, it’s a fun action flick with some great presentation and choreography. But during the long pauses in between fights, it slows down considerably to a dull, tedious, and very familiar affair. A great action movie is about more than just fight scenes, and if you’re looking for an example of what happens when you have solid action but not much else, look no further.
Fantastic Fest runs September 21st – 28th. Visit the festival’s official website.