Whenever action fans discuss the best martial arts movies of the last decade, Gareth Evans’ Indonesian Pancak Silat Raid duology inevitably worms its way into the conversation. There’s a reason for this – The Raid movies are very, very good, showcasing bona fide fighting studs in Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian, and some truly bone-shattering choreography that makes sure the audience braces for each impact. Undoubtedly a riot with an audience, there’s also a grueling element to both pictures, in that part of their spectacle is how much punishment they inflict on the performers. Like great gore-centric horror, The Raid movies test our limits, engaging in a dead-ass stare down with viewers, daring us to flinch.
The same cannot be said for Jailbreak, Jimmy Henderson’s showcase for the Cambodian martial art bokator. While the movie is just as relentless as The Raid in piling on one set piece after another inside of a close-quarters locale (this time it’s a prison instead of a tenement building), there’s less of a focus on arms breaking and blood showering the environment, as Henderson seems more keen to keep whip-panning to other fighters during his showy one take fight platforms. But there’s also a humorous element that keeps popping up during many of the fisticuffs – a throwback hybrid of comedy and action that recalls some of the best work from legends like Sammo Hung.
The setup for Jailbreak is incredibly simple. The all-woman Butterfly Gang (headed by Celine Tran’s samurai sword-wielding sexpot) has a traitor in Playboy (Savin Phillip), who just flipped and is being escorted to maximum-security prison, where he’ll turn state’s witness. This obviously is a problem for the controlling female cartel in Cambodia, and they dispatch numerous hidden assassins (maids, cafeteria workers, escorts) to try and take him down before the cops can even load him up in the transpo-wagon. If they succeeded, there wouldn’t be a movie, and the police team assembled to escort him (comprised of choreographers Dara Our, Jean-Paul Ly and Tharoth “Little Frog” Sam) soon find themselves caught inside a staged riot, instigated by the Butterflies to cover up Playboy’s murder. Naturally, mayhem ensues.
It takes a moment for Jailbreak to start rolling, but once it does, our stars ensure that their skills are on full display. Bokator is a fighting style comprised of “knees and elbows”; less elaborate flips, tumbles or takedowns. That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of kicks and elaborate stunt work, but there’s more of a “throw your hands” thrill to the set pieces. It’s easy to see why Ly has earned credits on big budget genre productions like Doctor Strange and Lucy, as he tosses himself into the fray with boyish abandon. Though DP Godefroy Ryckewaert is the real ace at times, whipping his camera around while still remembering to stay far, wide and steady, capturing each blow and fluidly moving with the combatants.
There’s some inventive visual and character gags tossed into the mix for good measure. During an early melee, the camera suddenly becomes one of the prisoners, allowing us to flail and paw at the embattled cops as they wail away on our fellow miscreants. Later, Henderson lets some of the more outlandish characters stashed away in isolation come out to play, as a “Cannibal” (Siriwudd Sisowath), a vicious psycho named “Snake” (international superstar Ruos Mony), and a hulking monstrosity known as “Suicide” (stuntman-cum-actor Laurent Plancel) all get one-on-one fights with different members of the squad. Henderson doesn’t shoot for an edit, either, as there are minimal cuts, and he allows his choreographers to really work within the frame. That’s the reason why you show up for these types of movies: to be wowed and walk away wondering how they were able to get all that movement crammed into a single shot.
In the end, what’s still most impressive about Jailbreak is its sense of playfulness. This isn’t some grim affair, but rather a movie that stops dead in its tracks to give you a knowingly goofy slow-mo shot of three black clad female assassins entering a prison carrying samurai swords. There’s a cartoonish quality to its characters and their predicament that Henderson exploits for silly thrills, instead of exhausting splatter. Once you toss in Playboy’s late in the game efforts to wiggle his way out of the Butterflies’ grasp (coming off like a Cambodian Harry Dean Stanton), it’s impossible not to get caught up in the eccentric energy of Henderson’s good-natured endeavor. Jailbreak was never going to be the “next best thing” you ran to tell all your JCVD-loving buddies they had to drop everything and watch ASAP. But it does possess a charming commitment to delivering cheap joys, sporting a smile on its face the whole time.