Some say the average film goer watch movies to escape the monotony of everyday life. It makes sense; our main characters usually traverse worlds your wildest imaginations couldn't conjure up. For a couple of hours at least, we put ourselves in the shoes of an unlikely hero beating the odds and think “wouldn’t it be cool if that was me”, giving us enough sustenance to return to autonomy.
This particular format of film comes in many shapes and sizes but it’s very common among sports films. We’ve had some truly great stories in Raging Bull, Moneyball and Creed (I guess Rocky has to count too because it’s a sort of prequel that has to have happened for Creed to be conceived. While we’re in the brackets counting technicalities, I’ll put Real Steel in here too because it’s an underrated boxing film about robots that everyone should watch), but somewhere along the way substance was replaced for style.
We usually get a person, either down and out or yet to realise their potential, run through the usual hoops to get them to the big tournament or game. They win it against the odds in an extravagant, over the top display or lose to an adversary who now respects them as their equal despite giving them an unnecessarily hard time. 2017's boxing triumph A Prayer Before Dawn does something a lot of mainstream projects - let alone sports films - can’t or struggle to do these days. For 116 minutes we are offered a truly immersive experience that is hard to turn down.
From the opening shots, we follow Joe Cole’s Billy Moore try and establish himself in a world he doesn’t call home. Arrested on drugs charges while kickboxing in Thailand, Billy must do everything he can to survive the Thai prison he indefinitely calls home. Based on real-life Billy Moore’s book of the same name, Billy’s only useful commodities are his tenacity, his talent for kickboxing and his ability to read a room quickly. With English language rarely used in the film, it quickly becomes clear that the latter of his three skills will be the most useful. For me, it’s what makes this more than a just a well-made boxing film.
Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire uses his boxing sequences incredibly efficiently. At the hint of confrontation, tight camera angles move in reaction to Billy. The lack of spoken English, plus the emptiness and ethereal tinge to the score help emote Joe Cole’s raw, reactionary acting too. It allows you to believe in the peril Billy has found himself in and his desperation to survive or even better, escape.
The same can be said for the non-boxing scenes which I would strongly argue are even better than the fights. Sauvaire constructs his film in such a manner that the fight sequences mean nothing without the nuance and tension the quieter moments bring. Considering the film is set in a prison and consists mostly of sex, drugs and violence, these juxtapositions are all the more impactful.
That said, A Prayer Before Dawn is a sports/boxing film, and can’t quite escape typical tropes - the wax on wax off philosophy etcetera, however, it does well to construct them in some novel ways. The final fight pays off far greater than expected as you simply can’t predict it or and the aftermath. Even if you consider yourself a genre pro, you’ll enjoy revisiting the calling cards.
A film like this will appeal to a specific audience but it is way more than just a box-ticking genre film. The action you see is earnt and the pay off is remarkable. There isn’t really much point or moral to the film but it doesn’t need one: A Prayer Before Dawn is a film to immerse yourself in and a journey you’ll more than likely never experience.