In The Most Dangerous Game (Pichel/Schoedsack, 1932), Count Zaroff (Leslie Banks) arranges for a ship to be wrecked on his isolated private island so that he can hunt and kill the passengers that survive. Since then, there have been several adaptations of the same O. Henry short story, also known as “The Hounds of Zaroff”. While writers Jimmy Henderson, Michael Hodgson and Kai Miller might not credit the story itself for their new Cambodian action film The Prey, it is definitely of the same species, although the extent to which it has evolved in the 88 years since is debatable.
Gu Shangwei plays Xin, a Chinese detective working undercover in Cambodia who is arrested and taken to a jungle prison. Unfortunately for him, ultra-rich thrill-seekers pay to hunt down and kill the inmates of their choice. After being chosen as a wild-card by the prison’s warden, he is forced into a fight for survival against three heavily-armed Nimrods with varying degrees of sanity.
Director and co-writer Jimmy Henderson has been working in Cambodia since 2011 and from the success of his Netflix-distributed martial arts thriller Jailbreak (2017), he has managed to develop The Prey, touted as the first $1 million Cambodian action film. His direction here is solid if a little utilitarian, but the key difference in the two films is the move by Jean-Paul Ly from star of Jailbreak to being the action director and fight choreographer on this new release. While Ly clearly has the talent to make his own stunt work look extremely impressive, the choreography in The Prey is respectable but not breathtaking.
The main issue is that the film is neither fish nor fowl. It isn’t outrageous and over-the-top enough to be an all-out action film or realistic enough to be dramatically credible. It doesn’t have enough political nous to be a statement on modern Cambodia either, in fact we learn almost nothing about the country except as a vague Southeast Asian setting that could conceivably (to a Western audience) have a jail where this could happen.
Most of the characters are severely underwritten, and although it does stop them from being completely predictable clichés, it doesn’t make them particularly interesting to an audience. You would expect nameless victims to have non-existent back-stories, but not even the main protagonists are developed beyond the bare minimum needed to keep the narrative moving. Mony (Rous Mony), a prisoner who Xin ends up as quarry with is at first presented as a weaselly chancer, using his knowledge of Cambodian and Cantonese to enhance his status at the prison. Shortly after, a brawl breaks out and he climbs a tree to avoid the violence and confrontation. The traits of coward and weasel might not seem too difficult to assimilate, but nothing is built from either incident. Although slightly whinge-y while being pursued by armed hunters, when the time comes to resist them, he does so without too much difficulty or momentous triumph of personality.
Vithaya Pansringarm as the Warden is the nearest the film comes to creating an effective action-move stereotype. Recognisable from his role as the corrupt policeman Lieutenant Chang in Only God Forgives, (Refn 2013), he also played a warm-up prison warden role in the unwanted Statham sequel Mechanic: Resurrection (2016). Disappointingly he doesn’t have enough to do here, and although he seems to be enjoying his heinous behaviour, he doesn’t reach such peak loathsomeness that only his death could quench an audience’s bloodlust for revenge against him. Even a Reservoir Dogs-esque scene of torture in which he jauntily shimmies around to music while telling Xin how much he loves breaking men until they become like animals isn’t enough to make him reprehensible enough to truly hate him.
The ridiculous Ozploitation knock-off Turkey Shoot (Trenchard-Smith, 1982) is closer to The Prey plot-wise than The Most Dangerous Game, setting the same narrative in a remote fortress with a group of deviants that have been cast out of a future dystopian society. Although undoubtedly bad, where it succeeds is in making the story even more ridiculous with its gratuitous gore and bizarre cast. By attempting to ground The Prey in something closer to a plausible reality, Henderson and his co-writers have downplayed the story’s strengths and created something that although enjoyable on a fundamental level doesn’t really warrant extensive analysis. With the lack of Cambodian films reaching a wider audience, this is a missed opportunity to present a view of a country that most Western audiences know very little about, all packaged in an exciting 90-minute action film. As it is, it’s just a fairly entertaining lower-budget Hollywood film in an vague Southeast Asian location.