The Prey, director Jimmy Henderson’s followup to Jailbreak, is modestly sized, reasonably engrossing, and studded with flamboyant actors who get to say things like, “You thought that hell was just a fairy tale? I’ve made it real!”
Henderson is an Italian-raised director who spent some time in the UK before heading to Cambodia to work in the rising film industry there; this is allegedly the first million-dollar movie completely made in that nation.
Richard Connell’s 1924 short story “The Most Dangerous Game” is the loose source, and one well-milked goat. There have been about a million TV adaptations — the one with secret agent Maxwell Smart was rather good. It’s been the plot of more than a dozen films, with titles like Bloodlust! and The Suckers. As for the best version, the original 1932 adaptation, it was one more ornament to that magnificent year for horror films. Under Ernest Schoedsack’s direction — he later did the original King Kong — a shipwrecked Joel McCrea was the quarry of a decadent noble. Moreover, the pre-code version had a sexual angle The Prey lacks, thanks to the casting of the primordial scream queen Fay Wray.
The Phnom Penh settings are one thing that sets this new one apart: Xin (Gu Shang Wei) is an undercover Chinese detective working for Interpol and trying to break up a ring of scammers. When the cops raid the headquarters, he’s taken to a prison 200 kilometers east of Cambodia’s capital. It’s a “undesignated international zone” beyond man’s laws, apparently. The warden (Vithaya Pansringarm, more about him more shortly) is just the nicest guy in the world: “Your happiness is our highest priority,” he tells the yard full of tattooed convicts, keeping up a constant chatter on the PA system to remind his prisoners of what will regretfully happen to them if they break the rules.
Xin was just trying to defend himself in a jailhouse squabble, when he’s thumped and tossed into solitary. At first the warden brings him breakfast — ”Room service!” — but then he subjects our hero to upside down electroshock torture, with musical accompaniment from the Bangkok-based rockabilly combo, the Johnny Loda Trio.
This warden gives you a lot to like. Pansringarm takes off his sunglasses slower than Cool Hand Luke’s Strother Martin. His smirk of self-satisfaction only dims when he gets what’s coming to him later on. The Warden’s side hustle is human safaris: he picks a squad of prisoners and lets well-off sportsmen hunt them to the death in the jungle.
Today’s load of wealthy hunters are particularly obnoxious: a punter (Sahajak Boonthanakit) with ghastly amber sunglasses and a large and unsavory handlebar mustache; Mat (Byron Bishop) a slick-as-lard American, and Mat’s nephew, clearly there to be picked off so Mat can get his money. The nephew is played by The Prey’s best actor, Nophand Boonyai, as an automatic rifle-wielding punk who insists on being called “T.” Boonyai gets to run with the part, even as he runs after his dangerous two-legged game. We’re tipped off that T is a psycho, and worse, a murderer without the stomach for it (he gags over the man he mangled with an explosive shell). At least T is an authentically paranoid schizophrenic, having inconvenient hallucinations during the hunt, and swatting imaginary bugs. It’d spoil the film to describe the well-deserved demise waiting for him, but it’s clear Henderson is fond enough of this character to send him off to hell smoking a cigar.
The Prey crosscuts between Xin’s all-night escape from the hunters, as the others are picked off one by one; meanwhile, the evil T commandeers a poor villager with a deaf son to help him track the prisoners. T is more vivid than the leads. Xin’s partner Li (Dy Sonita) tries to track him down, but gets kidnapped by the Warden. She doesn’t have much to do but be a hostage right up to the free-fire fight at the end. Wei’s Xin has Jackie Chan’s haircut, with those trustworthy-looking bangs, but he’s otherwise colorless. He is clearly a good guy. Cornered by the side of some impressive river rapids, Xin issues a polite martial arts challenge to a villain. What begins with courtesy ends with Xin beating the villain to death with a rock. It takes a while, it’s a small rock.
Aside from one sunrise, Henderson can’t seem to make the jungle as luminous as the foliage in Rambo or Beyond Rangoon. It does get crowded out there. The Warden encounters Xin’s Interpol partners when he’s helping to clean up the mess; when things go further south, he whistles up a squad of gunmen and black clad motorcycle goons. All props to Jakkaphong Wisunth’s neck-risking stunt, by the way. Dar Robinson, the legendary stuntman, leapt off the CN Tower in Toronto and base jumped off the side of the Grand Canyon, but what killed him was a motorcycle crash much like this one. The point of the film is that violence reduces a man to the state of an animal. This moral has less impact in a film that’s devoted to beatdowns, using everything from bamboo spears to a man’s belt. The Prey isn’t the kind of film you watch to lament the beast in man, since it exists to give said beast a crunchy snack to keep his teeth shiny.
The Prey can be streamed through select virtual cinemas via Alamo on Demand, and will debut on VOD services Aug. 25.