By Thomas Puhr.

Henderson version of Connell’s ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ quickly ditches visual fluidity once the hunt begins and instead settles for a series of repetitive shootouts and sequences of aimless wandering”

With its brisk pacing, memorable characters (Count Zaroff is a blueprint for countless villains), and tailored-for-classroom-discussion themes (violence brings out the “animal” in humans, the predator becomes the prey, etc.), Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” (1924) continues to inspire myriad books and films. While it has been directly adapted – from 1932’s classic RKO feature, to 2020’s baffling Quibi series – the story’s central premise remains a subgenre in and of itself. It’s difficult to imagine The Condemned (2007), Predators (2010), The Hunger Games (2012), The Hunt (2020), or even the popular Purge series without it. Given the dearth of quality in the above examples (I never thought I’d reference a Steve Austin vehicle here), perhaps it’s time to politely tuck Connell’s adventure away and move on to other source material. With the exception of Battle Royale (2000), no one has gotten it right in decades.

Jimmy Henderson’s middling The Prey (2018) now joins the ranks of such mostly-forgettable genre fare. Although Connell’s story goes uncredited, Henderson, Michael Hodgson, and Kai Miller’s screenplay has been promoted as a loosely adapted modernization of it. Gu Shangwei plays Xi, an undercover cop who is mistakenly arrested during a police raid and sent to an isolated prison headed by the exorbitantly evil “The Warden” (Vithaya Pansringarm, whom you might recognize as the guy who whooped Ryan Gosling in 2013’s Only God Forgives). In addition to instigating riots and torturing inmates, The Warden also operates a side business in which he “sells” prisoners to wealthy hunters who, like Zaroff, want to know what it’s like to kill the most dangerous animal of all: man. Needless to say, it’s only a matter of time before Xi is plucked out of his cell, dropped in the middle of the Cambodian jungle with a handful of other inmates, and forced to play a cruel game of kill or be killed.

There are some things to admire here. At its best, the film feels like an undiscovered direct-to-video actioner (as a genuine fan of 1991’s Samurai Cop, I mean that as a compliment). Pansringarm digs into his role with relish, laughing maniacally and practically spitting his lines. “I’ve made a hobby of this,” he explains while torturing Xi. “I’m obsessed with those moments when man becomes animal.” The hunters are also cartoonishly entertaining, especially Payak (Sahajak Boonthanakit); sporting a handlebar mustache, yellow-tinted aviator sunglasses, and a safari outfit, he looks like he stepped out of a Looney Tunes episode. Another customer, “Mr. T” (Nophand Boonyai), hallucinates that various characters have animal faces. Not very subtle metaphorically speaking, but at least the surreal imagery spices things up a bit.

Though it adopts elements of that mid-‘90s action charm, it also inherits its questionable gender politics. 

Still, the above guilty pleasures (I’ll always be a sucker for the requisite fight in which a bad guy brazenly drops his weapon so he can take on the hero with his bare hands) don’t make up for The Prey’s less-innocent datedness. Though it adopts elements of that mid-‘90s action charm, it also inherits its questionable gender politics. As Detective Ly, the investigator trying to find Xi after his mistaken arrest, Dy Sonita isn’t given much to do. Promptly captured by The Warden and his cronies, she spends much of the film waiting for our protagonist to rescue her. Later, she functions as something of a mother figure for an orphaned villager (in a scene which could have made for genuine conflict but inexplicably goes unaddressed, Xi kills the child’s father after mistaking him for a hunter), but their relationship feels tacked on.

It doesn’t help that The Prey arrives in the wake of a golden era for action films; the likes of 13 Assassins (2010), John Wick (2014), Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), The Villainess (2017), and Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018) have collectively raised the bar for the genre, deftly interweaving genuine emotion with jaw-dropping set pieces and elaborate martial arts choreography. And while a few early moments show promise – the opening raid plays out in a series of impressive long takes, and a prison riot reminded me of a (far superior) scene in Gareth Evans’ The Raid 2 (2014) – Henderson quickly ditches visual fluidity once the game begins and instead settles for a series of repetitive shootouts and sequences in which Xi and his sidekick, fellow inmate Mony (Rous Mony), aimlessly wander the jungle.

Even so, Henderson displays a keen visual eye, and his and director of photography Lucas Gath’s compositions are often quite striking. The opening shot of a lush jungle being interrupted by a frantically-running figure (one of the hunted, we discover) calls 2019’s Monos to mind, and some of their overhead terrain footage exhibits a painterly attention to detail. Such moments – so few and far between – point to a lean, atmospheric thriller which ultimately never materializes.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International.

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