"Strong Punch, Little Prayer"
A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN is the true story of British stunt man and later underground kickboxer Billy Moore, a drug addict with a violent temper who gets thrown into two of the worst prisons in the world in Thailand. These brutal penal institutions, filled with fierce tattoo-laden criminals and corrupt jailers, take the unsuspecting Billy to the brink of insanity, and even death. Characterized by institutional cruelty, violent bloody boxing scenes, drug consumption, corrupt prison guards, illicit sex, and the typical debauchery that goes on in prison, A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN is not for family viewing. However, prison turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Billy’s ultimate redemption, which, to this day, remains a work in progress.
After being arrested in his dingy apartment in Bangkok for the theft of a gun and drug possession, Billy Moore (played by Joe Cole) is introduced unceremoniously to the Thai prison system. On the very first night, he has to sleep on the bare floor in a small steamy hot room with up to another 80 half-naked men, and even a dead body.
That was just the beginning, however.
Billy has to deal with murderous, tattoo-laden and often AIDS infected fellow inmates whose indoctrination rituals could mean life or death. He also must endure witnessing male on male rape at the point of a knife and navigate his way through violent infighting among the inmates so that Billy can be accepted in the established order.
Prison life isn’t easy for Billy, but it’s especially harder for him because he’s prone to wild violent outbursts himself. Making matters even worse is Billy’s constant need for a fix, especially for “Yaba,” a potent and particularly addictive form of methamphetamine. Billy’s drug addiction more than once puts him in a big debt, which, if left unpaid, becomes a death sentence, or “worse.”
Billy is able to find some solace by fashioning a bond of sorts with Fame (Porchanok Mabklang), a thirtysomething transgender prison inmate who supplies Billy with cigarettes he uses to negotiate with other inmates. Sadly, Fame also gives Billy some furtive sexual contact as well.
Billy’s big ace in the hole, however, is his ability to fight in a boxing ring. Eventually, aided by his underground cigarette business, he’s able to bribe the prison guards and be moved to a cell block populated by Muay Thai boxers living in much better prison conditions. Slowly but steadily, Billy’s skills are honed by solid training, and he eventually becomes a finely-honed fighting machine in his own right. Billy’s progress doesn’t go unnoticed by prison officials who want a sure winner to represent them in the ongoing prison boxing tournaments. Billy’s outlook for a better future begins to brighten.
A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN brings into view a raw, tense, almost surreal, vision of what life is like for prison inmates in Thailand. The movie is shot in vivid colors using real prisoners rather than actors and using uncomfortable close ups creating a sense of claustrophobia and unease. It also portrays the prison population living in degrading, totally unsanitary conditions, always fighting among themselves in an almost free-for-all environment where survival of the fittest is the only applicable rule. A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN contains minimal dialogue, an alternatingly disturbing and mesmerizing music track, and some smartly placed visual cues reminding viewers that Buddhism is still the dominating religion in that part of the world.
In his autobiography, Billy, played to the teeth by Joe Cole in this movie, recalls that at one point a group of Christian missionaries showed up at exactly the right time to rescue him from a particular drug debt and almost certain death. So, in exchange for their help, he offered to “believe.” “If you pay this debt,” he tells them, “I’ll believe in anything you like.”
After being transferred to the second prison, which was worse, Billy realizes some Muslim inmates have access to better food than the rice and chicken heads and eyes he regularly ate. They invite him into their group, but only as long as he’s a Muslim, that is, which is contrary to his confessing faith in Jesus Christ to the missionaries. So, the question is, does Billy really believe in Jesus Christ or Allah.
Despite the strong scenes shot at a visceral level and the almost palpable stench of degradation that permeates the movie, a message of overcoming eventually comes across when Billy uses boxing to improve his situation. This plot development gives viewers a powerful feeling of relief and hope. The movie’s ending also suggests that, as long as you hang in there during times of intense trials and tribulations, there is always hope. From a Christian perspective, years after his prison experiences, Billy now goes around talking about his experiences and discouraging young people from a life of drugs and crime.
That said, A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN is not a movie for children of any age. Also, the movie has many raw scenes of prison degradation, cruelty, brutality, drug abuse, and violence. So, even adults should use extreme discretion on whether this movie is something that would be proper nourishment for their soul.
A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN packs a strong punch, but has a lesser spiritual message. It tells the story of Billy Moore, a young British expatriate and ex-convict who thought it would be a good idea to strike out on his own in the exotic country of Thailand. However, Billy soon finds himself enslaved by drug addiction and barely squeezing out a living as an underground kick boxer. Eventually, Billy is arrested and sentenced to serve time in two of the world’s worst penal institutions. Aided by his boxing skills, he survives and makes it out alive.
Brutally realistic, A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN is filled with all the degradation, inhumanity, corruption, violence, and depravity that accompanies the prison environment where it takes place. Thus, it’s not acceptable family viewing. That said, the movie has an uplifting redemptive message that eventually comes to the surface. The positive ending goes a long way to make A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN an interesting movie, but please exercise maximum discretion. Young English actor Joe Cole makes a standout appearance as Billy in A PRAYER BEFORE DAWN.