Directed by: Mike Wiluan || Produced by: Junxiang Huang, Kimberly James, Rayya Makarim, Fong Chen Tan, Mike Wiluan
Screenplay by: Rayya Makarim, Raymond Lee || Starring: Ario Bayu, Yoshi Sudarso, Pevita Pearce, Tio Pakusadewo, Reinout Bussemaker, Daniel Adnan, Alex Abbad, Conan Stevens, Alexander Winters
Music by: Yudhi Arfani, Zeke Khaseli || Cinematography: John Radel || Edited by: Sean Albertson || Country: Indonesia, Singapore || Language: Indonesian, English
Running Time: 103 minutes
As Indonesian action cinema in particular and Oceanian genre film in general blossom from the fertile seeds laid by Gareth Evans’ Raid (2011, 2014) films, its native filmmakers experiment with weirder and more creative combinations of cinematic formula. You have action interbreeding with horror conventions in Killers (2014), crime drama narratives in Berandal (2014), and grindhouse thriller tropes in The Night Comes for Us (2018). Even genres that have little vibrancy elsewhere have found resurgence in Southeast Asia. Westerns, for instance, which have long been defunct in mainstream Hollywood, have been rebooted as “Oriental Westerns” in Korea (e.g. The Good, The Bad, The Weird ) like in Japan before them (e.g. Seven Samurai ); now, the the latest Western-action hybrid has arrived in Oceania in the form of Mike Wiluan‘s Buffalo Boys, a not-so-subtle homage to classical American cowboy pictures whereby the cinematic American frontier is translocated to colonial Indonesia, trading Mexican outlaws for Indonesian martial artists and Native American tribes for the Dutch East India company. These cultural mishmashes and blending of Western and martial arts action formula don’t always synergize, but Wiluan’s production team has enough dynamic versatility to make their ambitious narrative swim despite a limited budget.
Buffalo Boys opens in the “original” American West, where our trio of heroes, the young Indonesian nobles Ario Bayu and Yoshi Sudarso, and their uncle/mentor, Tio Pakusadewo, engage in old-fashioned bare-knuckle boxing on the United States continental railroad they helped build. The narrative soon transitions to their characters’ native Indonesia, however, as they embark on their uncle’s long awaited mission — i.e. to fulfill the dream of every Old World immigrant parent of every second-generation American, ever — to recapture their native village from the iron grip of a ruthless Dutch officer, Reinout Bussemaker. On its surface, this premise is a fun, inventive twist on the traditional gunslinger formula, especially when one takes into account director Wiluan’s competent blending of Western gunplay stunts and Southeast Asian martial arts choreography. Director of photography, John Radel, seems to relish the near endless staging possibilities of combining the two, producing a plethora of well paced, creative, unpredictable action set-pieces that develop organically and build tension before their release. The only weakness of the movie’s action filmmaking is its lazy use of digital blood FX, which are a far cry from The Raid films’ seamless transition between practical and computer generated (CG) gore, as well as several obvious composite backgrounds in the film’s opening act.
Also related to these diverse, dynamic action scenes are the film’s wonderful set-design and location photography. Buffalo Boys takes full advantage of its tropical island backdrop, using everything from sun-soaked rice paddies, humid jungles, and gorgeous waterfalls to set the Old World mood for its throwback outlaw narrative. The Indonesian scenery further blends with the film’s impressive period-design of saloons, rural villages, and colonial architecture, yielding a funky hodgepodge of a diegesis that feels like a collection of different Western and Eastern settings merged into one. It feels organic in a bizarre kind of way, both original in its specific combination of historical genre styles, as well as derivative for its obvious homage to various classic films before it.
What undercuts Buffalo Boys has everything to do with its inconsistent screenplay and mediocre characterizations, courtesy of writers Rayya Makarim and Raymond Lee. Director Wiluan is credited with the film’s story but not its script, which, combined with the movie’s aforementioned brilliant action-direction, genre-blending tone, and wonderful period detail, lead me to believe Wiluan elevated a weak screenplay through sheer force of will. Like the nonsensical stories and questionable character development in the rebooted Star Trek (2009, 2013, 2016) films, written by screenwriting hacks Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci but executed by the lens-flare extraordinaire, J. J. Abrams, Buffalo Boys lives and dies on its style. Outside its action sequences, Boys is well meaning but clunky at best, underwriting or overindulging most every supporting character from Pakusadewo to Bussemaker to its entire female cast. The latter are so misused their presence in the film is almost comical, with Wiluan dedicating considerable screentime to a subplot of supporting actress, Happy Salma — including scenes of gratuitous assault and rape — only to have her killed off unceremoniously minutes later. Actress Pevita Pearce is introduced as a badass, buffalo-riding archer in her own right, yet is reduced to either filler dialogue or a helpless hostage for 95% of her screentime. Our Dutch villain, Bussemaker, clearly relishes his over-the-top dialogue, but his screen presence is wasted on a somewhat boring character who doesn’t have much to do besides spout comical one-liners.
Buffalo Boys is altogether a mixed bag once you reach the end credits. Its action sequences are creative, fun, and immensely entertaining, and are complemented by their memorable colonial Indonesian backdrop. That being said, the film grinds to a halt every time its dual leads, Ario Bayu and Yoshi Sudarso, aren’t blowing away colonial oppressors with their Lancaster quad-barrels or dismembering Javanese gangsters with hatchets. The film’s large supporting cast is, without a doubt, the biggest casualty of the film’s lackluster screenplay, most of whom are reduced to one-dimensional villains or trite, formulaic, quasi-love interests whose character arcs yield little payoff. I would be hard-pressed to recommend the film to anyone besides die-hard action fans, despite how much fun I had with the movie, top to bottom. With all that in mind, Buffalo Boys is yet further evidence of Indonesian action cinema’s blossoming in the 2010s, continuing the legacy of Gareth Evans’ and Iko Uwais’ groundbreaking work on The Raid movies. As much as those latter films influenced cinema as far away as Hollywood, it’s only right their native archipelago nation benefited the most from their success, and Buffalo Boys remains an admirable, if flawed, descendant of unparalleled action icons.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Buffalo Boys sports action filmmaking as ferocious and testosterone-fueled as its title, mixing and matching powerful gunplay, well choreographed hand-to-hand combat, and memorable stuntwork to great effect. Its period aesthetic boasts an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach that would make Bollywood features jealous, and stylizes these diverse genre influences into set-designs and unforgettable tone that would make Quentin Tarantino proud.
—> However… aside from the film’s comical digital blood and a few blue-screen eyesores, Buffalo Boys is based on a weak script likely saved by the herculean efforts of director Mike Wiluan. Its entire supporting cast is either underwritten or overwritten, focusing energy on all the wrong parts of its talented actors’ performances.
—> ON THE FENCE: See it if you’re a genre-aficionado or a fan of Indonesian action cinema like me, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone not into action movies or Westerns in general. It’s too inconsistent outside its violent set-pieces to have broad appeal.
? Why do these Dutchmen speak English instead of, you know… Dutch?