You might have seen everything Jailbreak has to offer before, but this Cambodian martial arts thriller still has its moments.
“Is it always like this?”
“This isn’t what normally happens.”
At this point in my life I’ve seen a lot more gritty, hyperviolent martial arts beat-em-ups than I thought I would. Ostensibly starting in Thailand with 2003’s Ong-bak, the sub-genre gained massive popularity when Indonesia released The Raid in 2011 and it wasn’t long before other countries followed suit, notably the Philippines with BuyBust and, in the same year, Jailbreak from Cambodia. Hell, the US even tried their hand at it with Dredd.
With the title alone, and a vague knowledge of how these kinds of films go, you can probably make a pretty detailed (and likely accurate) guess as to what Jailbreak is about. Four cops, fresh from the arrest of a crime lord known as Playboy (Savin Philip) must now protect that man when he reveals he knows of Madame Butterfly (Céline Tran), the true leader of his organisation, and she immediately sets the entire jail on him, notably top killer Bolo (Sisowath Siriwudd) . These four cops are Dara (Dara Our), Tharoth (Tharoth Sam), Sucheat (Dara Phang) and newbie Jean-Paul (Jean-Paul Ly), who’s just arrived from France for reasons that don’t affect the plot in the slightest. From there the cops go from room to room, fending off hordes of attackers more or less until the credits roll. You know how it goes.
Jailbreak’s biggest challenge is in carving out an identity for itself. One of the biggest problems with movies like this is that it’s difficult to justify a character mow down scores of people without too much consequence, so we tend to get variations on a theme of criminals swarming overwhelmed cops until enough blood is shed to satisfy the cinema god of mass slaughter. It’s basically those Batman Arkham Asylum games, but with fewer slick gadgets. And it’s not like it’s a bad formula. We in the West have happily sat through countless Die Hards On A X that it’d be hypocritical to complain at Jailbreak’s lack of originality.
Well, OK. It does have a couple of interesting titbits that make it stand out a tad. The first comes in the form of a solitary confinement section which houses a few decent minibosses, one of which is a hulking cannibal with Jason Voorhes levels of indestructibility. He’s a bit goofy to watch and not the least bit scary, but the main cast seem to think otherwise. Along with a couple of other inmates he provides a good change from the countless martial arts-savvy jailbirds. The other fun change comes in the form of the final boss herself who we see in a number of small scenes before she picks up her katana and goes to jail to finish the job herself – with a little help from her band of highly trained lady assassins.
Céline Tran brings a different energy to the story, even if she isn’t used all that much. Similarly Savin Philip chooses to play his role a bit sillier than other characters in the same vein might. He’s a gangster who isn’t used to the stark and dirty side of his profession, and can barely stomach pissing in a prison toilet, let alone defend himself against a tidal wave of rabid inmates. Yeah, he gets a bit annoying at times, but it’s still nice to have a break from the serious with a couple of dumb kinda-funny moments.
It’s more than I can say for the main cast who are all likeable, but not entirely fleshed out. While it’s nice to see more than one person in the lead roles – making it less certain who will survive and not – none really has a lot of personality. And when they are given time to expand on their stories, it doesn’t do a whole lot to enrich the experience. It’s cool that Jean-Paul is from France and doesn’t know how things go in Cambodia, but I’m not entirely sure what it was trying to say. It’s not like the situation he’s stuck in is typical for the country, so there isn’t a lot of opportunity to do comparisons or commentary.
Ah well, whatever. We’re not here for a detailed breakdown of the pros and cons of the Cambodian prison system. I’m sure there’s a haughty documentary out there that does just that. We’re here to see people get kicked about, and that’s what we get. The action is excellent, though some of the shot lengths seem to have taken a page from the Taken 3 book of editing. And when the action starts to get stale writer-director Jimmy Henderson throws in Bolo, the cannibal or that other guy from solitary (I think his name is Suicide). This keeps things fresh and fun so you don’t have to think too hard about you could just be watching that time Iko Uwais also fought an entire jail. And then there’s Butterfly and her group, who are a merciful change from tough dudes in prison pyjamas.
Jailbreak is a solid film, but also one that’s perfectly happy not feeling the need to reinvent the wheel. It knows what it wants to be and goes hard, leaning into the tropes and expectation as much as it needs to to tell its story. If you’re into these south-east Asian brutal battle films, have just finished Headshot and wondering what else is on – Jailbreak will definitely satisfy. If only it tried harder to break free of its bonds.
Verdict: Often thrilling but occasionally dumb, Jailbreak suffers from sameyness but that doesn’t impact the action one bit.
Overall entertainment: 7/10
Originality: 5/10, but points for the cannibal I guess.
How to show you’re rich in a visual medium: Wipe your mouth with dollar bills, naturally
Socheat: Really can’t be bothered. It’s very relatable.
Assassin team: Wait, did they do anything? Were they even assassins?
Also known as: ការពារឧក្រិដ្ឋជន
Khmera, English, French
Director: Jimmy Henderson
Writers: Jimmy Henderson, Michael Hodgson
Jean-Paul Ly – Jean-Paul
Dara Our – Dara
Tharoth Sam – Tharoth
Céline Tran – Madame Butterfly
Savin Phillip – Playboy
Laurent Plancel – Suicide
Dara Phang – Sucheat
Sisowath Siriwudd – Bolo
Rous Mony – Scar
Eh Phuthong – the cannibal