Like Nicolas Winding Refn's moody 'Only God Forgives', Jean-Stephane Sauvaire's 'A Prayer Before Dawn' - his first feature since the eye-opening 'Johnny Mad Dog' in 2008 - has a story to tell about Bangkok's seedy underworld that most tourists don't often see. Based on Billy Moore's brutal memoirs of his time served in one of Thailand's most unrelenting penitentiaries, the film adaptation tracks his journey from the only Westerner in his cell with a target on his back to Muay Thai champion.
We meet the heroin-addicted Englishman (Joe Cole, TV's 'Peaky Blinders') as he's bare-knuckling it in seedy Bangkok gyms against local opponents in order to make enough to fund his next tin foil full of smack. For reasons that are never very clearly explained (to immerse the audience in Billy's world, much of the Thai dialogue goes unsubtitled), he is arrested and sentenced to a three-year spell in Thailand's notorious Bang Kwang Central Prison (famously nicknamed the Bangkok Hilton by foreigners).
Not only is Billy the only Caucasian in a horrifically cramped cell, lying literally shoulder-to-shoulder with dozens of other hardened local criminals, but the deplorable living conditions and lack of any sort of law and order makes the prison life in Ric Roman Waugh's recent 'Shot Caller' seem like a privilege (during his first night in, Billy is held in place with a knife to his throat and forced to watch the gang-rape of a young newcomer to remind the Westerner of his place).
Billy's main survival strategy is to intimidate his copiously-tattooed cellmates by shouting a lot and lashing out as much as he can, while taking the occasional beating.
Never asking for your sympathy, Billy struggles with his drug addiction (fed to him by a prison guard played by Vithaya Pansringarm from 'Only God Forgives') and is more than willing to punch somebody half to death to earn his fix. The rage that drives him comes from deep within - even when he is finally allowed to train in the gym, thanks for a routine cigarette bribe, his tendency to self-sabotage and give in to his anger sees him almost ruin everything he's worked for. Billy also finds comfort in his relationship with a ladyboy named Fame (Pornchanok Mabklang), who is in prison for murdering her father and is kept in a separate part of the prison. They form a bond through shared feelings of misplacement, and these scenes are the only reprieve from the unrelenting harshness of Billy's everyday routine.
Sauvaire has stripped the 2014 international bestseller 'A Prayer Before Dawn: A Nightmare in Thailand' of a lot of its more lurid and mawkish qualities. The script, credited to Jonathan Hirschbein and Nick Saltrese, resists any temptation to fill in Moore's backstory with tales of childhood abuse or tragedy. The sordid details - including a lengthy history of heroin addiction and 15 years spent in different prisons - are kept to a minimum here.
Sauvaire captures the sweaty, overbearing atmosphere of Billy's new home, heightening the sound design so every breath sounds like it's coming from your own head, and every punch rattles your brain. David Ungaro's cinematography makes the most of the tight, damp spaces so that the film feels almost like an invasion of your personal space. The fact that Billy, with his imposing musculature, height and pale skin, sticks out like a sore thumb among the Thai prisoners only increases the feeling of imminent attack.
Sauvaire has stripped the 2014 international bestseller 'A Prayer Before Dawn: A Nightmare in Thailand' of a lot of its more lurid and mawkish qualities, resisting any temptation to fill in Moore's backstory with tales of childhood abuse or tragedy.
The film begins and ends with British newcomer Joe Cole, and the talented young actor dominates every scene in between. Cole delivers a game, unrestrained performance, reminiscent of then up-and-comers Tom Hardy and Jack O'Connell in 'Bronson' and 'Starred Up', respectively. It's low on dialogue and big on physicality.
Aside from Cole, the film features a cast composed mostly of unknowns, nearly all of whom were former convicts themselves. Unfortunately, none of them have much in the way of character development, and are largely interchangeable threats or allies to Billy.
On another negative note, the fights (choreographed by David Ismalone) are shot so closely, from the waist-up, that it lessens the impact of the blows. Although we can see Cole's pale skin flush as punches and kicks clearly connect, we can't see things like footwork or technique. Nobody expects every kickboxing film set in Thailand to feature fight scenes on par with Prachya Pinkaew's 'Ong Bak', but the film could have used some of the crunchy editing and angles of 'Jawbone', Johnny Harris' drama about a boxer fighting alcoholism via training for one last battle in the ring.
Most annoyingly, while 'A Prayer Before Dawn' may dabble in the tropes of the prison and boxing genres, it never really commits to either. It's a little bit of Alan Parker's 'Midnight Express' and the slightest hint of Ekachai Uekrongtham's 'Beautiful Boxer', but both of those films explored notions of repression, masculinity and homosexuality on a much deeper level, via dialogue and a wealth of characterisation. Like the lack of subtitling, Sauvaire keeps the audience swirling around Billy's motivation and thought processes.
Ultimately, 'A Prayer Before Dawn' is a tough watch with a strong central performance. However, it doesn't quite overcome an extremely pared-down story that doesn't have much to say.