In the 1990s, the French action films of Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, Leon: The Professional) and Euro-centric offerings like John Frankenheimer’s Ronin provided a sleeker, more exotic alternative to the outsize, muscle-bound exploits of Stallone, Schwarzenegger and Van Damme. Besides movies with the words “Fast” or “Furious” in their title, American action flicks have mostly moved away from lo-fi, knucklehead thrills and turned to PG-13 heroes in CGI adventures. Meanwhile, European filmmakers have stayed in their stylish, car/foot-chase-loving lane. The result is entertaining yarns like The Prey/La Proie, which stands out thanks to its thuddingly simple action movie pleasures.
“Sure, Franck. You can trust me.”
The Prey opens with intimate glimpses of a loving couple. Director Eric Valette quickly throws a harsh light on the scene (and the audience) by revealing the lovemaking session is part of a conjugal visit. Franck Adrien (Albert Dupontel) is three months away from finishing a prison stint for bank robbery. Franck stashed the loot before getting caught and refuses to reveal its location to anyone, including his accomplice/fellow inmate or even his own wife (Caterina Murino). The film quickly establishes Franck as a tough guy who keeps to himself, which is why it’s surprising when he stands up for his meek, alleged child rapist cellmate Jean-Louis (Stephane Debac).
Franck gets an additional six months in jail for his part in defending Jean-Louis. Unfortunately, the bad guys who want the heist money are threatening Franck’s wife and daughter. A desperate Franck confides in Jean-Louis — who is about to be released from prison because his accuser changed her statement — and gives him private information about his family. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say Franck trusting Jean-Louis turns out to be une énorme erreur. (Pardon my intermediate college French). Soon, Franck stages a daring prison escape and attracts the attention of talented cop Claire (Alice Taglioni) and her team.
Despite assured, pulse-quickening direction from Valette and superlative, bone-crunching fight choreography by Olivier Schneider, I’d actually give the movie’s MVP award to Dupontel. The actor is equally believable as both a hard-nosed crook and a loving husband/father. In fact, you could say Dupontel is almost too believable when you consider some of the film’s more outrageous moments. (Like Franck falling off a building, landing on top of a van, and then running off a few seconds later not much worse for the wear.)
The film’s highlight is a 3-on-1 prison fight that reminded me of a less showy version of the hallway scene in Chan-wook Park’s Oldboy. Both sequences feature a seemingly overmatched hero and effortlessly make violence look like a brutal ballet. Dupontel’s Franck is more of an everyman than the characters Liam Neeson has been playing in Euro action films like Taken after being reborn as an action movie badass in his mid-50’s. Franck’s particular set of skills mostly involve sprinting — which Valette heightens with terrific tracking shots — and an ability to shrug off debilitating gun shot wounds. Dupontel’s believability in the role easily allows the audience to invest in his horrific predicament from the very beginning.
Unfortunately, much of the film’s second half plays out like a poor man’s version of The Fugitive. (Taglioni acquits herself quite well in the film, but she’s no Tommy Lee Jones.) The script by producer Luc Bossi and Laurent Turner features great pulpy lines like “I’m back from the dead for a reason; to root out evil others can’t see.” On the other hand, the movie also throws in a bunch of story threads and tired thriller tropes. These include the female cop trying to prove herself in a male-dominated environment and the disgraced cop working outside the law to catch a killer (played here with a spark of madness by Sergi Lopez of Pan’s Labyrinth). The bad news is they wind up unnecessarily pulling focus from the main story. The good news is the performers bring their parts to life. I was especially impressed by Debac, who makes Jean-Louis thoroughly convincing from beginning to end.
I wouldn’t call this film mindless, but — as with other great action films — it’s best enjoyed if you don’t spend too much time harping on pesky things like believability and character motivations. Thankfully, the deficiencies in The Prey are superseded by its unabashed desire to thrill and entertain you.
The Prey is presented in an aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average of 31 mbps. The first images we see are extreme close-ups of Franck and his wife. The Blu-ray immediately makes a strong impression by revealing a tremendous amount of detail in those shots (including scars and pores). The early part of the film mostly focuses on sterile, grayish prison interiors. But once Franck breaks out, we’re treated to warm, dazzling colors as the manhunt takes us to the suburbs and picturesque countrysides. Although they’re quite different from a visual standpoint, both sections of the film are equally sharp and impressive. The one minor blemish is what looks like unintentional digital noise during a darkened establishing shot or two, but black levels are solid overall. Overall, Cohen Media Group has produced a terrific, vibrant visual experience on Blu-ray.
The DTS-HD French Master Audio 5.1 track is just as good as the visual experience. The propulsive score by Noko similarly sets the tone early on for this robust track. Gunfire not only explodes out of the speakers — during the sting operation where we meet Claire — but it does so in a lively way that fills the entire sound field. Meanwhile, the subs serve to punctuate certain sound effects; so when Franck is taking a beating in prison, the track makes you feel every blow with a violent thump. There is also a good sense of immersion throughout, not just when the action moves outside the prison walls. This Blu-ray also offers a version of the film dubbed in English; you can make your language selection when the main menu first loads or you can switch over any time during the film. (Unless you’re violently opposed to subtitles, you really should just watch it in French.)
Behind the Scenes Featurette: (38:09) This on-the-set glimpse at the production totally eschews the talking head interviews we’re used to seeing on Making Of docs. Instead, it basically feels like we’re hanging out on the set during the filming of each of the movie’s action set pieces. (Of which there are many.) I loved getting this glimpse at how movie magic is made. I was also immensely impressed by Dupontel’s physicality. Presented in standard definition.
Interview with director Eric Valette: (13:29) This is an enlightening, subtitled chat with the director. Valette is unapologetic about insisting the script include an action sequence every 20 minutes or so, and he admits some of Franck’s physical feats were unlikely. However, he also cops to the notion that the movie isn’t meant to be realistic; he simply wanted to make an action film that didn’t take place in a “bubblegum world.” Presented in HD.
Cohen Media Group and Dreamworks recently announced they’ll be collaborating for an American remake of La Proie. It’s a bit of a silly notion because this film is basically an R-rated, more improbable version of The Fugitive. (Thinking…) Oh, who am I kidding? I would totally watch an R-rated, more improbable version of The Fugitive! Here’s hoping they get a better script. I would, however, like to see Valette get a shot directing the American version; I’m thinking he can redeem himself for inflicting One Missed Call on American audiences.
The Blu-ray looks and sounds great. Although there aren’t a ton of special features, the two included on this disc are informative and entertaining. I hated to do it, but I had to knock off a half point for the film’s gooey, far-fetched ending. However, everything that leads up to the disappointing conclusion is a hell of a good time.