French twisted: The Prey ***

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on June 8, 2013)

With the possible exception of Michael Mann’s Heat, I can’t name too many “cat and mouse” police procedural dramas I’ve seen where I’ve found myself rooting for both the “good” guys and the “bad” guys. That would the case in director Eric Vallette’s terrific new thriller, The Prey, because he adds a “worse” guy to the mix (more on him in a moment).

Granted, our “good” bad guy is no saint; in fact when the film opens he is doing hard time for bank robbery. Franck (Albert Dupontel) is trying to keep a low profile; he just wants to ride out his sentence so he can be reunited with his wife Anna (Caterina Murino) and little girl Amelie (Jaia Caltagirone). However, there’s a complication. Just prior to his arrest, Franck was able to stash the loot. Keeping his cards close to his vest whenever grilled by the cops, he’s remained mum as to the location (much to their chagrin). And, (no) thanks to a corrupt guard, Franck has endured repeated intimidation from fellow inmates who have been trying to pry the intel from him so their accomplices on the outside can scoop up the loot. Franck holds firm, and somehow keeps landing on his feet.

Everything is going swimmingly for Franck until the day he steps in to thwart several sadistic inmates who are about to gang-rape his slightly-built, mild-mannered cellmate Jean-Louis (Stephane Debac) as the guard nonchalantly looks the other way. The bespectacled, bookish Jean-Louis is in jail for child abduction, although he swears that it’s a “wrong man” scenario. Anyway, you know what they say: “No good deed goes unpunished.”

Long story short: Franck gets extra time for his trouble, Jean-Louis is cleared by the court and wins a release (not before thanking Franck and chirpily insisting that he look him up when he gets out). Soon afterwards, Franck has a discomfiting visit from a twitchy ex-cop (played by the wonderful Sergei Lopez) obsessed with nailing Jean-Louis, whom he insists is in fact a diabolical, cleverly elusive child-rapist and serial killer. Franck, now seeing Jean-Louis as a potential threat to his family, makes a jailbreak (with the ex-cop’s help), and they team up to hunt down Jean-Louis. They in turn, of course are being chased by cops, headed by a tough female squad leader (Alice Taglioni).

What ensues is a pulse-pounding mash-up of The Fugitive, The Lovely Bones, and Taken, rendered by Valette in a fluid, kinetic style recalling Luc Besson’s best action thrillers. Laurent Turner and Luc Bossi’s deftly-constructed script nicely manages several converging story lines, maintaining a vibe of Hitchcock-worthy suspense whilst delivering surprisingly well-fleshed out characters for such a fast-moving entertainment. Strong performances abound, particularly from Dupontel as the fiercely focused Franck, Taglioni as his dogged pursuer, and Debac as the deceptively benign serial killer (the creepiest such portrayal this side of Anthony Hopkins’ Lecter). The Prey may not break any new ground, but delivers the goods.

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