Richard Connell’s 1924 short story, “The Most Dangerous Game”, brought the idea of humans hunting humans to the cultural forefront, and since then its impact has proven timeless...
...Over the years it has evolved into its own subgenre, filled with countless adaptations, re-imaginings, and rip-offs from across the globe. Cambodia’s 2018 offering, The Prey, proves the subgenre isn’t going anywhere any time soon.
Directed by Jimmy Henderson and written by Henderson, Kai Miller, and Michael Hodgson, The Prey is quick, well-made, and entertaining. The film’s only shortcoming is that the story pursues its game on grounds that have been overhunted and depopulated of ideas.
Undercover Interpol agent, Mat (played by the fiercely talented Byron Bishop), is arrested while on assignment to infiltrate a drug cartel. Not wanting to blow his cover, he allows the arrest and is almost immediately shipped off to a remote prison. The prison warden (played by Only God Forgives' Vithaya Pansringarm) tells Mat that he enjoys pushing men to their breaking point. The warden believes that when men are tortured and terrorized enough, they return to their baser instincts and become more animal than man. Soon enough, we learn that the warden supplements his income by allowing rich people to hunt and kill some of his prisoners. Mat is chosen for the hunt and, well, we can guess where it goes from there. Will Mat survive long enough for his superiors at Interpol to find him? Will an unlikely friendship form between Mat and one of his fellow prisoners? Will this be better than Quibi's take on the genre? The answer to all these questions is, obviously, yes.
The Prey may be wholly formulaic and largely without surprises, but it is no less enjoyable for it. The fight sequences are choreographed and shot in the fast, controlled chaos form popularized by 2011's The Raid: Redemption. Seeing a small group of convicts use dives, elbow strikes, and head-butts to overcome their heavily armed enemies is always thrilling and more than once drew peals of excited shouts from my living room.
All the performances in this film are one-dimensional. Scared guy is scared in every scene. Crazy hunter looks crazy in every shot. And Mat, our stoic hero, remains heroic and tough even when we are told by other characters that this experience has changed him. Playing so heavily into these tropes might leave viewers wanting something more from the characterizations, but this is not the type of movie to prioritize nuances and internal struggle over sick choke slams. Personally, I don't fault the filmmakers for their decision. If I had to choose between including a scene where Mat breaks down and realizes he's become the thing he hates the most and cutting out one arm bar, I'd keep the arm bar every time.
Vithaya Pansringarm's deliciously evil turn as the unnamed warden is a bright spot in this film's acting, and an improvement on his previous portrayals of the same type. In Only God Forgives Pansringarm gave an enigmatic and commanding, yet subdued performance as demon-figure Chang that left me wanting something with a little more intensity. In The Prey, Pansringarm turned the volume all the way up. We get the sense that the warden really likes his job and loves his side hustle letting rich people kill prisoners.
One must wonder why the story of the rich hunting the poor has endured for so long. Why do storytellers return to this strangely specific well? While The Prey does not take the meta-textual route and try to offer an answer, a viewer could reasonably ask themselves this question in between scenes of spin kicks. In terms of story, people being hunted creates drama faster than my family at my grandmother's wake. The setup is simple: one person wants to track down and murder another person, other person very much does not want to be tracked down and murdered. It writes itself!
Thematically, something interesting happens when a human takes the place of an animal onscreen. Watching a human run while being shot at and hunted by some stranger puts us into the position of deer, quail, or even fish. We can't help but see the inherent hypocrisy of polite society's decision that the very real terror animals experience while being hunted for sport is meaningless, while imagined human suffering is impactful. A similar experience happens with movies involving human cannibalism. Seeing somebody eat another human reminds us (subconsciously, perhaps) that billions of people engage in the rending of flesh and the mass slaughter of life every day. Whether or not it is the filmmakers' intent to show the terror of sport hunting, it does have an unsettling effect: it brings humanity's moral compass into question.
Finally, the idea of a group of rich people hunting a group of their less fortunate counterparts is an inherently classist struggle. What do the super wealthy do with their time and money? The answer “hunt poor people” seems as likely as having Eyes Wide Shut sex parties, I suppose. This may be a Cambodian film shot over 2 years ago, but the idea of the rich preying on the poor and/or convicts appears to transcend cultural lines and even time itself. Exploiting prisoners for their labor or setting up systems that will keep the lower classes from finding financial stability are obviously not the same as shooting them for sport. But fiction thrives on taking real world problems to their extremes. In this film, it is entirely intentional to depict the callousness of the wealthy as they spend money to enjoy human suffering.
The Prey is an exciting actioner worth watching for its great fight scenes, over the top gore, and some fiendishly fun villains. It doesn't have very much to say, but that's okay. This movie is comfortable letting its fists do the talking.
The Prey arrives in virtual theaters on August 21st and on VOD August 25th from Dark Star Pictures.
By Mark Gonzales