Tuesday, August 18, 2020

'The Prey' (2019) Movie Review

Richard Connell’s short story “The Most Dangerous Game” has, officially or otherwise, served as the basis for countless action movies. Hard TargetSurviving the Game, Bloodlust!, and others—not to mention all the straight adaptations—all draw from the tale of men hunting men. Now we can add Cambodian actioner The Prey, from Jailbreak director Jimmy Henderson, to the pile.

Undercover Chinese cop, Xin (newcomer Gu Shang Wei), finds himself in a brutal Cambodian prison run by a vicious warden (Vithaya Pansringarm, Only God Forgives). Turns out, the warden also sells inmates to rich dudes who want to experience the thrill of stalking and killing another human being. With Xin, however, these baddies get more fight than expected. Don’t they always?

A self-taught filmmaker, Henderson, an Italian working in Cambodia, shows definite promise. Mechanically, it’s really all here. Even working with little money, The Prey has a strong look. From scene to scene, it’s competently constructed, and the action from fight choreographer Jean-Paul Ly is bone-breaking and thrilling. As a whole, the film comes from someone who obviously has a firm grip on the technical side of this style of filmmaking.

From a narrative perspective, however, there’s work to do. The basic plot, simple and bare bones, isn’t anything action fans haven’t seen, but it offers enough structure on which to hang a movie. We’ve all seen action films with far less to work with. But even with this stripped-down story, it often becomes unfocused and messy.  

Xin is the ostensible protagonist, but The Prey spends little time with him, instead choosing to concentrate on a bevy of superfluous side plots. Gu Shang Wei handles himself well with the action, but the script offers minimal characterization beyond the fact he’s an undercover cop. Those two words sum up his entire personality and he evaporates from the film for long stretches. Pansringarm does what he can as the ruthless, vicious warden, but it’s a role he can play in his sleep, and if you’ve seen him in anything, you know what to expect here. It’s a one-note version of what he can be.

To be honest, the most characterization goes to the hilariously named Mr. T (Nophand Boonyai), and even that’s uneven and all over the place. He starts out as the young hothead of the group of hunters, the one who uses a grenade launcher. But as the film progresses, he has flashbacks, or hallucinations maybe—it’s never clear what’s going on. It all come out nowhere and never develops into anything meatier. Still, it’s the most intriguing character work to cling to.

Everything else receives similarly shallow treatment. Two of Xin’s colleagues track him only for that thread to unceremoniously fade away. There’s an aside with a local villager and his deaf son who have the misfortune to wind up as reluctant trackers for one of the hunters. Though possibly engaging to show another consequence of this criminal activity, the script leaves it flapping in the breeze. Dialogue hints at intricate pasts between a few of the hunters, but outside of snapshots and glimpses, they never dig any deeper.

Not only do these storylines never grow or evolve, they’re pieced together in a way that creates no flow. Haphazardly arranged The Prey lacks momentum, urgency, and forward propulsive force outside of moment-to-moment action set pieces. There’s no larger tempo and it never settles into a rhythm, instead bouncing around—overly drawn-out scenes butt against others that are little more than quick snippets. Even in what’s probably the best fight scene—Xin fighting a nameless goon on top of a waterfall—we cut away mid-action just to see a minor character walk in the jungle for a single shot before jumping back. It’s a curious choice that derails the entire battle with no benefit or added value.

Though there are major pace, character, and structure issues, The Prey showcases Henderson’s potential as an action director. He has the tools and skills in place, even if he could stand to light some scenes better. If he can smooth out the narrative issues, or find someone to work with on that front, we’re going to see great stuff from him in the future. 

Even with the problems, The Prey is watchable and should satisfy action fans for a time. It’s an enjoyable stopgap as we wait for the next movie from the likes of Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto. Similarly, I’m game to check out whatever Gu Shang Wei does next, he shows definite flashes of my kind of cinematic badassary.

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