Billy Moore (Joe Cole) made some mistakes in his life, but who doesn't? Mind you, not everyone's mistakes land them in the circumstances that he wound up in, as he was making a living as a kickboxer in Thailand to fund his heroin addiction, selling drugs too to keep his head above water and his veins pumping with the hard stuff. However, he was very visible there as a Westerner, and was swiftly arrested by the local police who just as speedily saw to it that he was placed behind bars for a very long time, the Thai drug laws being very strict. Now Billy was at his lowest ebb, struggling to find heroin, at risk of violence in the prison, and with no light at the end of the tunnel...
Although A Prayer Before Dawn came across in promotion like it was going to be a gritty boxing movie with the emphasis on the action sequences, it was more like an arthouse film that melded a Jean-Claude Van Damme tournament movie like Bloodsport with the prison ordeal genre such as, most blatantly, Midnight Express. That latter had been much-complained about by the Turks for its unforgiving depiction of one of their prisons, but apparently the Thais had no such qualms about the incarceration in this, possibly reasoning that by making it look as diabolical an experience as possible, it would in turn deter potential criminals from taking that life of crime.
They'll only get caught after all, and from what little we hear of the past lives of Moore's fellow inmates they had slipped into a downward spiral of a cycle of lawbreaking, from drug-taking all the way down to murder. It might have been interesting to know more about the backgrounds of those jailbirds, yet the focus was on more or less the only white person in the entire cast, which was a deliberate decision as far as you could tell, to render the protagonist's alienation so much more intense. The Thais may have been subtitled for English language speakers, but that did not result in them being appreciably more able to be understood, even when they were speaking actual English.
At the heart of it was Cole, wandering through the worst years of his life in a daze only broken when he was called upon to be violent - or indeed had violence visited upon him. In what was a cliché from the Midnight Express days onwards, he is threatened with rape, and made to have no doubts about what will happen if he does not comply with the more powerful prisoners, who we have to assume are gangsters. Then again, for heroin the guards use his muscles to beat up the Muslim inmates to keep them in line, though a repeated image is of Billy collapsing on his back in a state of exhaustion, whether thanks to getting high or physical exhaustion or even because he is in such a state of despair that he cannot face getting up and carrying on. Cole, not exactly emotive, at least conveyed those states, even when Billy fell for a ladyboy (Pornchanok Mabklang).
Also, his fighting once he got in the ring was noticeably non-Thai, and you may wonder how far behaving like that in combat would get Billy, though it was difficult to tell if this was a stylistic choice or simply the best Cole could do. The prison system we saw operated a boxing programme where the incarcerated could channel their aggression, and ambition for that matter, into legitimately beating the crap out of their cohorts, or if they were not up to the task, having seven shades of shit punched and kicked from them instead. There is gambling and corruption here, which comes as no surprise, so the main drama arose from the damage Moore's body was undertaking, and whether he would survive much longer. That this was based on his memoir would answer that question for you, and if the message was a blunt "don't do drugs, kids", it set about its grim milieu with a single-minded sense of purpose that was powerful in the way repeatedly getting booted in the head was powerful. Music by Nicolas Becker.