Cambodia isn’t the first place that springs to mind when thinking about classic martial arts movies, but Italian ex-patriot director Jimmy Henderson’s Jailbreak might make you think again. It is, not to put too fine a point on it, cracking good fun.
Playboy (Phillip) is the only male member of the otherwise all female Butterfly Gang, and when he’s arrested he offers to give up the identity of Madame Butterfly (Tran) for a more lenient sentence. She isn’t going to stand for this though, so calls in a favour from inmate Bolo (Siriwudd) at the Prei Klaa prison Playboy is being escorted to, to clip the canary’s wings before he can sing. Meanwhile Jean-Paul (Ly) puts together a small task-force comprising Dara (Our), Tharoth (Sam) and Sucheat (Phang) to chaperone Playboy safely into Prei Klaa, but they’re not long inside the jail when, well, we’re sure you can guess.
The action kicks in at around the half-hour mark, apparently a Cambodian technique combining kickboxing with hand weapons called bokator, and while aficionados of this kind of thing will have pretty much seen it all before, Henderson’s fluid camerawork and extensive choreography manage to keep things fresh. There are several quite extended sequences involving almost unbroken shots, with the camera darting this way and that as the four police officers fend off sometimes dozens of assailants at a time; it’s quite thrilling – and tremendously entertaining. Henderson’s script, co-written with Michael Hodgson, never forgets to include a healthy dose of humour and the director balances the comedy and action supremely well.
Part of the reason for this is his casting of the main characters, all of whom – including the bad guys – are extremely likeable and quite distinct from one another. Thus when, for example, Jean-Paul indulges in a little daydream about Tharoth, you’ll find yourself first rooting for and then laughing at him, and much more involved than if Jailbreak had been all action at the expense of character and humour.
It seems the budget for this film was a mere $260,000, the tight use of mostly just the one location evidently accounting for the low overheads. But the liberal use of plenty of well-trained extras and some judiciously edited in outside filming help to maintain the impression of a film that cost ten times that amount, Henderson having done a terrific job of putting every last cent up on the screen. This is a no frills and no extras Australian DVD release (from the redoubtable Umbrella Entertainment), but the picture looks nice and sharp and this is well worth seeking out no matter where in the world you are. A genuine surprise and delight, and not just for martial arts fans.
JAILBREAK / CERT: MA (Australia) / DIRECTOR: JIMMY HENDERSON / SCREENPLAY: MICHAEL HODGSON, JIMMY HENDERSON / STARRING: JEAN-PAUL LY, DARA OUR, THAROTH SAM, SIRIWUDD SISOWATH, DARA PHANG, CELINE TRAN, SAVIN PHILLIP / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW