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Home > The Prisoner (1990): An Underrated Classic Thriller

The Prisoner (1990): An Underrated Classic Thriller

Some Fates Are Worse Than Death

Directed by Kevin Chu and released in 1990, The Prisoner is a criminally underrated thriller that keeps viewers on the edge of their seats. Also released under the name Island of Fire, this film is set in a Hong Kong prison where death row inmates are being recruited for government-funded assassinations. The film follows a group of inmates as they try to survive their sentence.

What Makes This A Thriller?

Before understanding what makes this film such a great thriller, the reader must first understand what a thriller is. Films that fall under this genre are typically plot focused and filled with tension. In essence, thrillers are meant to stress the viewer out. Naturally, this particular genre encompasses a large variety of films including action, horror, and even drama. There are plenty of well-known thrillers out there such as Panic Room, Scanners, and Hellraiser, to name a few. At a glance, viewers may assume that this film is a simple action flick due to Jackie Chan’s involvement. This, however, could not be further from the truth as this film follows several characters struggling to survive. 

The pacing is often all over the place, making it difficult to know exactly what’s happening. At some points, a character will suddenly vanish only to reappear out of thin air halfway into the movie. This is a particular problem with Jackie Chan’s character often disappearing throughout the film. In Chan’s case, he would often take on multiple projects at the same time or even recover from injuries sustained from shooting other films. Don’t let this be a distraction as there are more than enough payoffs throughout the film. The setting and atmosphere also do a great job of creating a sense of dread. With nothing but concrete walls and gray uniforms, the melancholy is suffocating. This is something that all good thrillers seem to excel at since the atmosphere plays a large component. Horror movies can count on a well-timed jumpscare and action movies can focus on choreography and stunts but thrillers rely on a well-built atmosphere.


The Prisoner(s) That Make It Work

The central cast is composed of veteran Hong Kong actors. The most recognizable face in the entire film is undoubtedly Jackie Chan who is the poster boy for the film despite not being the main character. Another familiar face for Hong Kong action aficionados will be that of Sammo Hung, a frequent collaborator of Jackie Chan. While some of these characters are out for each other’s blood, there’s still undeniable chemistry. The actors do a great job of making their characters believable within this universe. Each character has their reason for being in prison and motivations which makes rooting for these characters even more titillating. There is no guarantee that the viewer’s favorite character will survive. Overall, the actors’ performances go a long way in keeping the viewer on the edge of their seats. The best performance of the entire movie goes to Sammo Hung’s character. Without spoiling too much, this character has the most to lose making it difficult not to root for him. While the film introduces him as comic relief, he quickly develops into a full-fledged character with his own arc.

The only issue in terms of character development that this film suffers from is the lack of a good villain. While there are multiple antagonists throughout the film, none of them feel like they can stand on their own. The Warden is advertised as the overarching antagonist but he is hardly ever mentioned, let alone seen except for less than a handful of scenes. The Chief of Security is another antagonist who at least gets more screen time but he fails to elicit any sort of feeling from the viewer. Two more characters do a great job of making the character hate them but they would never be able to carry the film as the central antagonist.

Hong Kong Cinematography

Despite there being less of an emphasis on action, the cinematography still feels like that of an action film. The main difference is that the action in this film feels more violent and survival based. The shots also often feel claustrophobic which helps emphasize the prison setting. For viewers familiar with George A. Romero’s Day of the Dead, a sense of deja vu will be felt through much of the film. This should hardly be surprising as both films centered around a group trapped in a concrete tomb, far from civilization. The lighting in this film has that distinct eighties/early nineties feeling which makes many of the scenes grimy and hazy with a visible layer of smoke visible. This all combines to create an almost dream-like aesthetic. The events that occur in this film certainly feel like a bad dream so this effect does the job. The best part of all this is that they completely change the cinematography in the last ten minutes of the film. 

Up until the last ten minutes, most of the film feels claustrophobic and is shot at night. This last section, however, is shot outside in the sun. Many of the shots in this section are wide-angled and shot from far away. If the rest of the movie makes the viewer feel trapped and claustrophobic, then this section should make them feel a sense of freedom. There is also a less hazy and grimy aesthetic at this point which makes it feel less dream-like.

Final Verdict

So is this film worth a watch? Amongst other action and crime dramas, this film would certainly have some trouble standing out. As a thriller, however, this film is certainly in a league of its own. Compared to other thrillers from the early nineties, this film has enough soul to stand the test of time. Feel free to give this more than one watch as the characters and atmosphere will keep the viewer coming for more without getting fatigued. 

The Prisoner is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and Youtube. Don’t become a prisoner to regret, take the time to give this film multiple watches.

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Source: Dead Talk Live

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A lover of gore and over the top violence, no movie can make my stomach squirm. The only thing better than a bloody death scene is a well choreographed stunt. Whether it be action or horror, if it has blood in it, then I've likely already seen it.