Like a bullet train, the French thriller "The Prey" is a model of breathless efficiency, its stuffed cargo of chases, brawls and twists delivered with admirable speed.
It also willfully genre-hops, from prison melodrama to escape flick to policier to Hitchcockian wrong-man lark to serial killer chiller, without skipping a beat or, more notably, dulling the senses like so many superhero behemoths aimed at brain-sanded teens.
For moviegoers who prefer cheeky wit, down-and-dirty mayhem and grown-up suspense in their air-conditioned escapism, "The Prey" deserves to light up the summer art house in much the way another solidly crafted French nail-biter, "Tell No One," did in 2008. (And this one's better.)
Director Eric Valette, working from a roller-coaster script by Luc Bossi and Laurent Turner, is a confident, natural action showman — as adept with the brutal choreography of a bloody scrap between prisoners as he is the gasping danger of running down a freeway toward oncoming cars.
The most exhausting aspect of the movie, in fact, is how often star Albert Dupontel is shown hightailing it on foot like a man possessed.
Dupontel's character is Franck, a classic Gallic hard case — hawk-like features, wavy mop of hair, serious eyes — incarcerated for a bank robbery. Visited frequently by an adoring wife and cute daughter, Franck thinks keeping secret the whereabouts of his millions from fellow inmates is his only problem.
But when desperate circumstances force him to bust out and track down the mousy, devious cellmate (Stephane Debac) he once protected, Franck becomes the focus of a manhunt led by a no-nonsense female detective (Alice Taglioni), whose butt-kicking bona fides are established when we meet her working undercover as a prostitute and taking down a gangster during a shootout. Did I not mention the nod to gangster movies?
The performances are a good deal of the fun too. Dupontel's ability to convey adrenaline-pumping emotion through sheer physicality is reminiscent of Harrison Ford's, while Debac — probably grasping his costar's strengths — balances that grit with effortless oiliness. Taglioni nicely underplays her cop's gutsiness, and the great Sergi Lopez — thicker these days, but no less intense — makes a few richly baroque appearances as a disgraced cop helping Franck clear his name.
The movie's kinetic, outlandish drive is the real star though. What's especially enjoyable about "The Prey" is how the filmmakers brazenly wear the narrative's implausibilities and eccentricities, like garish but artfully rendered tattoos. They even double down on sentiment occasionally. (It's safe to say that making Franck's daughter mute was a bit much.)
Yet these quirks are matched just as often by excitable bits that display more than a hint of savvy about the energy level: when to step on the gas, when to cruise, and when to swerve for effect. At any given moment, something is destined to gleefully distract, be it Dupontel's bulldog magnetism, a crazy stunt, a funny line, a clever camera shot, or a hairpin story turn.
"The Prey" is relentless, but it's a good-burn workout, a goosing of the thrill-seeking movie lover inside you, and never just an onslaught meant to kill time.
MPAA rating: Rated R for violence and language
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: At AMC Burbank