In September of last year, Singapore made the bold call to select Mike Wiluan’s Buffalo Boys as its entry for Best Foreign Language Film for this year’s Oscar celebrations, a play the Academy casually bricked with the release of its shortlist of 2019 contenders. A pity, really. Ranked among traditionally respectable, Best Foreign Language-y films, à la Cold War, Roma, Never Look Away or Shoplifters, the punch-happy quality of Buffalo Boys could have provided a much-needed palate cleanser, a reprieve from sophistication in exchange for enthusiastic ass-kicking.
Not that there isn’t a certain kind of sophistication to Wiluan’s filmmaking, or to the art of orchestrating ass-kicking on the big screen. Martial arts cinema’s foundation is built on history both richly composed and impeccably choreographed: Tsui Hark, King Hu, Zhang Yimou and Lau Kar-leung, for instance, value beauty in the construction of their films as much as they prize discipline and perfection in the filming of fight sequences. Buffalo Boys may not quite be a classic in the making, but it is a worthy update based on blueprints derived from both the martial arts and western genres. Ever hear the one about the two aggrieved brothers who ride into town looking for a piece of the evildoer who wronged their family? Of course you have.
In Buffalo Boys, the brothers are Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso), sons of a sultan killed decades prior during the invasion of Java. Their uncle, Arana (Tio Pakusadewo), fled with the infants strapped to his back, avoiding death at the hands of the evil Von Trach and fleeing to America. In the film’s present, Jamar, Suwo and Arana return to Java with retribution on their minds, six-shooters in their holsters, and martial prowess aplenty, ready to take out any bad guy fool enough to stumble into their path. Conventional wisdom suggests that it’s a bad idea to openly defy tyrants with more power than you, so the gang keeps it on the down low for as long as they can until, inevitably, their cover’s blown and they’re forced to fight in the open.
What Buffalo Boys lacks in originality it makes up for in spirit. There’s a verve in Wiluan’s direction, a sense of joy shaping his approach to the tried and true familial vengeance hook. There’s nothing worse than a genre movie preoccupying itself with subtext—like, say, the ramifications of the Dutch occupation of Indonesia—rather than making good on the genre’s promise, and it’s to Wiluan’s credit that he allows period and setting to function as Buffalo Boys’ backdrop only. (He’s shrewd enough to know that the backdrop will rise to the forefront through action, and that the action therefore matters more.)
In addition to having these priorities straight, Wiluan and his team of action coordinators and stunt performers make sure the all-important fight scenes are genre-worthy events. Eye-popping duels and brawls are the whole point of the exercise, which is probably why Wiluan has Suwo run a dude through with a bull’s skull, or why one recurring hapless henchman keeps on getting stabbed in the eyes; it’s why the climactic battle kicks off with Jamar and Suwo riding into Von Trach’s town on buffalos, lending the movie both a title and a unique take on western iconography. The stallions of the western have been replaced by resigned, surly bovines, trampling over hill and dale, their riders strapped with pistols, goloks and a grenade launcher for good measure. (Wiluan doesn’t care about the anachronism. Viewers shouldn’t either.)
The details here are as bonkers as the choreography is crisp and the geography well-laid. Buffalo Boys looks forward, bringing elements from another time and from veteran genres into 2019, treating those elements with respect, right down to the muddled gender politics that accompany its genre politics. (The “steely woman warrior” trope is abandoned almost as soon as it’s introduced, as Pevita Pearce’s strong-willed Kiona ends up a damsel in distress instead of a badass, but at least she gets to chop off a man’s head!) Leave stuffy, issue-driven prestige to AMPAS, and savor Wiluan’s bloody action artistry instead.
Director: Mike Wiluan
Writer: Rayya Makarim, Raymond Lee
Starring: Ario Bayu, Yoshi Sudarso, Tio Pakusadewo, Pevita Pearce, Mikha Tambayong, Reinout Bussemaker, Daniel Adnan, Happy Salma, Alex Abbad
Release Date: January 11, 2019
Boston-based culture writer Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009 (and music since 2018). You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.