There’s no question that last year’s Netflix release, Jailbreak, was a soaring hit that put director Jimmy Henderson on the map for a lot of martial arts fans, especially for folks who never got to see his 2014 directorial debut, Hanuman, but were nonetheless intrigued at the thought of acquainting themselves with another talented filmmaker who knows how to direct action.
Bearing this in mind, his 2016 horror fantasy, The Forest Whisperers, was also well-received among viewers – a clear indication that Henderson is much more than just a monolith for action fanboys, which is all well and good. I haven’t seen any film footage from that one save for its trailer, although it looks worth considering as we go forward into covering his latest thriller, The Prey, which definitely seems to carry over some of those more dark, brooding characteristics.
The pacing is a bit more slower and concentrated throughout this particular odyssey as the violence and danger escalate. Here we meet Xin (Gu Shang Wei), an undercover Interpol agent working the beat in Phnom Penh moments before a botched raid on the tenement facility he’s surveying lands him in prison run by a maniacal warden who plays by his own rules (Vithaya Pansringarm).
Before long, Xin’s disappearance alerts the Ministry of State Security’s own Inspector Wong (Jia Ling), and Detective Li (Dy Sonita) who then set out to find him. Little do they know he’s already been beaten, tortured, groomed in a rather robust selection process and quietly whisked away from prison grounds. Their destination? A remote jungle where he is now an unwitting competitor among a handful in a deadly game where inmates are hunted for sport.
Xin’s closest ally at this point is Mony (Rous Mony), a thief who’s even less of a fighter and just wants to make it out of the jungle alive. They’re being hunted by Mat (Byron Bishop), a wealthy, salt-and-pepper-haired, cigar-smoking businessman, along with his criminally handsome and equally batshit nephew, T (Nophand Boonyai) – heir to his father’s billions which he snidely flashes around after whipping as much as he can fit in his junk (he pulls quite a bit from his junk, actually), and Mat’s mustachio-donning business associate, Payak (Sahajak Boonthanakit).
Genre fans of the West following niche sites alike may recall Gu’s last known role in Shao Shang Wei’s 2015 film, Bloody Destiny, which fares a lot more in the fight-heavy aspect of its vision as well as its melodrama. On the action front, the same goes for Jailbreak, whereas with The Prey, Henderson trades wall-to-wall martial arts spectacle for a much more spatial, intense, taut survival thriller, and definitely keeps you on your toes a bit between the action set pieces.
Actor Gu and co-star Dara Ours, one of Henderson’s closest film cohorts and a regular collaborator since their star/director heyday on the set of Hanuman, share possibly the film’s biggest, most fleshed out one-on-one fight scene, and it’s a real treat.
Explosive gun battles, motorcycle huntsmen and instant gorilla kills fill in the rest, while it also helps knowing that Jailbreak star, Jean-Paul Ly (also of Nightshooters fame), serviced this time around in designing as much feasible action between the bigger stunt sequences as possible.
It’s also a plus that the film graces viewers with some good acting along the way. I doubt that a lot of people outside of China ever heard of Bloody Destiny, and so with a director who has made a marketable name for himself, Gu delivers a solid performance that surely welcomes him to the world stage. He’s definitely got the charisma down packed, and provenly delivers the physicality and stamina required for an action role.
Pansringarm chews it up as the evil Warden of the film. Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives may not be the most preferred film among the actor’s known credits, but he’s always fun to watch – even if he’s playing some form of lunatic lawman or military official – and here, he definitely plays the part in awesome fashion.
Actor Mony is one of the most easily discernible character actors among the roster. He’s a local talent away from the Western world and so it’s completely understandable if he comes across as “that character in that prison movie you saw” given this may only be the second film you’ll have seen him in. He fares a lot better in terms of his screentime and its enough to invoke the empathy his performance inspires.
One of film’s subplots unfolds between Mat and T, revealing a deep rift between uncle and nephew as T’s own symptoms surface in the form of hallucinations that compel him to mistakenly shoot others who aren’t the intended target. The film’s goriest scene triggers this particular plot twist of the film going forward.
Sonita’s role as the astute Li caught in the crossfire during her search for Xin marks her latest reunion with Henderson since briefly appearing in the opening scene of Jailbreak. Her role doesn’t have much to work with apart from playing captive until it’s time to strike. Li’s nuturing instincts kick in when a young boy lands in her care after his father’s death mid-way in the film.
There’s another subplot that’s pretty much left for dead last as the film reaches its climatic finish, and it comes packaged with a seperate sign-off on what could have been the film’s more direct intentions if treated better. The ending is as foreboding as it is perplexing with a tone that’s more toward something psychological in nature, which is more than I can say for the rest of the film depending on how much you read into what’s on screen.
Coupled with an original score from Sebastian Pan and featuring a mix of robust and sobering tunes by Johnny Loda and by pianist Nathaniel Jones, The Prey certainly makes an effort to be something of its own beast contrary to the obvious.
It’s The Rundown without The Rock. It’s Surviving The Game without Ice-T and coked-up Gary Busey. It’s Hard Target without Van Damme’s free-flowing mullet, tight waist-high jeans and the proverbial “big legs and karate”. (For that matter, it’s definitely not Hard Target 2 whereas that one was a waste of potential on top of all else).
Depending on how much you read into The Prey by its eerie ending, Henderson’s seemingly arcane approach may leave you feeling a tad morose as he tends to leave things on a nightmarish note in his movies. Otherwise, you’ll be hard-pressed not to be able to get your share of enjoyment from what this latest feat of action and fisticuffs has to offer.