A sadistic warden hosts a most dangerous game for his ultra-rich guests, who compete to see which of them can kill the most prisoners out in the jungles of Cambodia. What he didn’t count on was that this time, he rounded up the wrong undercover Chinese Interpol agent. You’d do well not to get arrested in Phnom Penh, lest you become…THE PREY.
At least that’s the vaguely menacing atmosphere sought after in this film that’s not quite a horror commentary like The Purge movies or The Hunt , and not quite a virtuoso martial arts showcase like The Raid series. It certainly veers in both of these directions, and perhaps the highest compliment I can pay it is that it reminds me of Bacurau  in its use of similar bloodsport, genre bombast, and themes of resiliency (both individual and collective). However, where the Brazilian film maintains its deeply personal sense of community to contrast the internationalist scope of its very specific commentary on the global charnel house that colonialism built, The Prey‘s internationalism is mostly just that it’s an Italian expat (the inexplicably named Jimmy Henderson) putting together kickass set-pieces with a multilingual cast out in the jungle somewheres without any real intention of making a studious argument (which is fine in its own right, of course).
This isn’t to say Henderson is not aware of the history of where he is filming, and by all accounts he has fallen in love with his newfound home and is likely sensitive to its violent history. The warden (Vithaya Pansingarm, who Western audiences may recognize from Only God Forgives ) is unmistakably Pol Pot, dudded up in fatigues and sunglasses, sneering and torturing and pontificating. And the opening of the hunt features a literal Killing Field where prisoners run for cover as their pursuers open fire. Scenes like the Chinese hero Xin (Gu Shang Wei) defeating a Cambodian baddie in hand-to-hand combat at the mouth of a purifying waterfall, or humble villagers taking up arms to help keep the warden’s backup at bay, represent some sort of expurgation of Khmer Rouge depravity, but I’m not smart enough to suss out all of the geopolitical implications of such a thing. However, it’s generally pretty clear that our fairer-skinned noble warrior is supposed to stand in direct civilized contrast to these corrupt psychopaths, save one noble savage (Rous Mony) who accompanies him as the only other surviving inmate. In fact, Xin’s descent into atavism as he spends more and more time fighting for his life in the jungle becomes the closest thing this movie has to a point, and it sets up a refreshingly cold lack of closure in the closing minute that is rarely seen in Western action movies. In short, there are layers of international racism, intentional or malevolent or not, from which this movie builds. This underscores the ultimate difference and space for muddled thematics between intentionality in globalized genre-play like Bacurau and doing a boilerplate mass-market version like this film. But hey, it’s working for Gareth Evans right?
I won’t be surprised if we see Henderson break out sooner or later, but to his credit I will say that he seems a little more dug into the Cambodian market than his Welsh counterpart was in Indonesia. He’s worked to bring genre “firsts” to the country’s nascent industry, like first zombie movie (2013’s Run!, on a technicality; if you don’t want to count Revolt of the Zombies , I won’t stop you), and with The Prey, first million-dollar action flick, and I respect his dedication to amplifying this market. While the film doesn’t dazzle with any particularly memorable bits of choreography, nor any of the especially brutal special effects you might expect of the genre even (points off for occasional use of digital blood), I’m willing to be patient as the country continues to develop a schlock identity all its own. Perhaps Henderson’s involvement will help to midwife this process along.