Review: Martial Arts Comedy, JAILBREAK (2017) Is The Break Fans Need

By 2013, French-born Chinese/Cambodian martial artist Jean-Paul Ly was well on his way into a fledgling career in stuntwork after moving to the U.K., although his primary trajectory aimed more toward becoming an actor. It's a move that couldn't have been more opportune for Ly whose own growth and progress ultimately found him in good straits with emerging talent out of Cambodia where then-screenwriter Jimmy Henderson and journeying up-and-comer Loy Te were already stirring some fruitful comradery of their own.

Thus, with the contribution of the work experience brought on by Henderson's directorial debut, Hanuman, and the entrance of local actor and martial artist Dara Our, and the proverbial open swing of the door for culminating talent comes action comedy Jailbreak, an abiding and much more commercial opportunity for Cambodian cinema, and incidentally, production company, Kongchak Pictures and Puprom Entertainment. The concept itself arose in earlier teaser posters with a familiar look that would have anyone fond of Asian action cinema curious and especially in the wake of such regional hit movies out of distant neighboring Indonesia...say, any film directed by Gareth Huw Evans for that matter. For what it's worth, it was certainly a step in the right direction.

Ly also serves as action director and fight choreographer with Our, further setting the tone and atmosphere with a combined work ethic that lends the film its much-deserved action movie buzz next to some of its cast. Michael Hodgson wrote the script for Hanuman, and makes his return to the pen for Henderson's newest action-packed outing which somewhat sees Ly in the fish-out-of-water role as a visiting French inspector from the Groupe d'intervention de la Gendarmerie nationale (GIGN), assigned to join a tactical police escort led by Dara to deliver sniveling, notorious criminal witness, Playboy, to Prei Klaa Prison to await trial. As the tale tells it, however, getting out won't be as easy as getting in with Playboy now a moving target, leaving our heroes fighting their way through hordes of inmates intermittently freed from their cells while a deadly gang of female killers descend unto Prei Klaa to collect Playboy's head.

Said gang, known as the Butterflies - a criminal network of femme fatales well-crafted in matters of killing and espionage - are led by the Madame herself, played by former AV star Céline Tran who spent a grand portion of recent years redefining herself as a film actress with a knack for screenfighting and camera readiness. Having had the chance to sample her blooming skillset with a number of folks in France's stunt and independent film community, principally with a definitive mark left in the live-action portrayal of Doggybag vampire action horror comic book, Heartbreaker, Tran makes her own debut here as well, and to some avail as well. She is never not stunning, and she provenly has what it takes to segue onward as an actress and, despite limited screentime in the fight department, a feasible action performer that stunt players can work with.

Savin Philip, who appeared in ruthless fashion as the villain in Hanuman, reunites with Henderson in the role of Playboy, whose eagerness to stay out of jail now sees him on the business end of one attempt after another by the Madame to have him killed as soon as possible. Phillip delivers one of the film's few, more stronger acting performances which also helps greatly in the film's comedy standing; at least one moment will have you doing double-takes in which after he downs mouthfuls of meat during dinner with the Madame, you'll be asking yourself just what that was he was wiping his mouth with. It's an exaggeration that still works, thus bringing function to the character instead of camp.

The remainder of the film rests purely on the presentation of its stars to carry the tonal pivot between drama and comedy, often changing between French and English to balance out with the film's bulk Khmer-speaking cast. It's also a condition that allows for a few nifty surprises during the overall exposition and development as we meet Ly and Our in their respective roles. The acting is initally stiff in their first scene together but improves amply enough as the danger and peril intensifies with the action. Naturally the dialogue flows a bit better among certain cast members between langauges; actor Visal Sok co-stars the role of Pros, a local police Colonel who shares an extinuating friendship with Ly, speaking both French as well as Khmer.

Atomweight MMA fighter Tharoth Oum Sam brings sturdiness and charm to her role as the only female member of Dara's squad. Showcasing a range that bodes excellently for key moments in scenes shared with a few of her co-stars, she also vindicates her debut emitting her own gravitas and acumen as a capable screenfighter on equal footing with her fellow co-stars. Dara Phang stands out as the team's comedy fixture, Socheat, who serves as a member of Dara's unit providing supplementary humor that doesn't interfere with his usefulness when the fighting gets going.

Jailbreak does leave a bit to be desired in its balance between the film's action and laughs. As a film with a part-comedy narrative, quite a few moments of hilarity work while others feel either dour or somewhat accidental; it's almost worth considering in a way if a film like Jailbreak could carry itself as a more serious action thriller, and it probably could if Hodgson and Henderson chose to go that route. Save for other opinions on the handling here, if you're laughing when those scenes arise then the film has otherwise done its job.

At best and with the biggest and most noticeable comparison to that of The Raid (2011), Jailbreak delivers solidly on what it promises in its first official trailer. Ly, next to acting, brings gumption to the position of action director for the film's perpetual fight scenery. With Our, the two bring their own distinctive balance and flair to their screentime amid the action with Our shepherding Bokator to the world on camera, and Ly serving a mix of styles varying in Kickboxing and Hapkido among others. It helps that the principal cast along with several of the film's key fight extras came trained and prepared aside from a number of up to 70 extras that required rehearsals for a number of the film's fight scenes.

The first fight scene between Our and Phang is introductory and well done despite some of the tight cinematography. Ly's first action entry occurs within the first half hour before things get massively serious. The shared choreography between Ly and Our is near-flawless, following a formula that strictly includes non-stop action, contact hits when needed, rapid fire succession in the fight beats, inclusive lensing, angling and editing that doesn't interfere with the action in the way most uber-budgeted A-list productions would, and the rare, if ever, use of slow-motion for the slightly more dramatic moments - all of which are textbook in this day and age for hungry filmmakers with an instinct to learn how to shoot action.

The action isn't in excess either as you're still left wanting more between scenes. The increasing threat level helps as well with the most interesting fight scene occuring at the 45 minute mark. That's when things start to get more bloody than predicted and will definitely have that obligatory 'Raid' vibe kicking in. The camerawork even goes a step further at one point, putting the viewer in the perspective of one of the film's goons, again, doing little to nothing to harm or hinder the fight scene footage. Godefroy Ryckewaert, whose amazing work on both sides of the camera I've been following for up to four years now and includes collaborating with a number of international and local stunt performers on shortfilm favorites, namely Shadow Of 13, Céline Tran's Bladed Minds with Kefi Abrikh, Hiro with Alex Van Duong and detective comedy favorite, Les Aventures De Tranh Et Nowak, served as the film's director of photography.

Even more rewarding is chance to watch Ly (stunts - Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist, Marvel's Doctor Strange) who finally gets his shining moment in a feature film fight scene with fellow UK actor and martial artist Law Plancel (stunts - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, Green Street 3: Underground) who also serves as assistant fight choreographer. Their most recent one-on-one in Colin Emerson's 2015 short, Dead End, was an exemplary preamble to their performance in Jailbreak which doesn't necessarily top it, but lives up to viewers' expectations. Actor Siriwudd Sisowath plays Bolo, a prison alpha male who cuts a deal with the Madame's cohorts to kill Playboy and eventually emerges as one of the film's final villains. Joined opposite from Ly and in parallel with Our who fights opposite co-star Brus Long and Sam with Tran, the shared ensemble fight finale is a worthwhile treat for the film's 90+ minute martial arts fanfare. The ending draws a bit more dour than preferred in its set-up for a sequel.

Not to be outdone by its local appeal, the commercial prospects for a film like Jailbreak have been a matter of time. It's a considerable opinion to have held and deservedly so and fir this, the niche in support of filmmakers like Evans and even the Mo' Brothers would be right to add Henderson to the mix. After Hanuman, Henderson and producer Loy Te were exactly what Cambodia's talent pool needed to help echo what it was trying to achieve to broader markets and their stop in Hong Kong back in March was a major bookmark in that effort. Further criticisms pending aside, Cambodia now has something to show for itself on the world stage with Jailbreak, coupled with a keen director, a knowledgeable producer, and a powerhouse cast that, for all intents and purposes, ushers in a continuing stream of malleable film talent that will only evolve and strengthen the face of martial arts cinema as we know it.

Asian cinephiles and action fans alike would be wise not to miss this movie. With room for improvement and every bit of potential for success in martial arts films and cinema overall looking head, Jailbreak is 90 minutes of kickass action screentime well served!


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