In recent years, there’s been an explosion of Westerns within the world of pop culture, with films and television using the unforgiving American frontier setting for tales ranging from straightforward to reconstructivist, from comedy to science fiction. As many of the genre’s gripping tales were lifted heavily from samurai lore in the first place, it was only a matter of time before that rediscovery of grimacing cowboys and dusty trail blazers made its way back East. In Indonesia’s first stab at the storied genre (a co-production with Singapore, who even daringly made the film its – ultimately disregarded – entry for Best Foreign Language Film for the 2019 Oscars), Buffalo Boys, director Mike Wiluan opted for a brash, guns out thrill ride that, while its eyes are often bigger than its stomach, aims to use the brutality of its familiar backdrop as the catalyst for sheer, fast-paced popcorn entertainment.
Instead of chronicling a trek down the Oregon Trail or zeroing in on a California gold rush settlement, Wiluan takes us to 19th-century Java, as two brothers, Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso), are on a mission to avenge their father’s death and reclaim what is rightfully theirs from the cartoonishly evil colonial governor Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker). In a blaze of six-shooters and martial arts choreography, the brothers leave behind a trail of bodies on their quest for retribution.
Clearly idolizing the elaborate fight choreography popularized by such recent films as The Raid and John Wick, the film treats each fluid battle sequence as a miniature ballet. Calling upon both high noon shootouts and poetic martial arts precision, the transcendent actions set pieces strewn throughout Buffalo Boys are expertly staged, as Mike Wiluan pays careful attention to the subtle beauty of movement. Rather than dwell on the toils and triumphs of the gruff antihero or gaze out upon vast, tumbleweed-filled landscapes, the film exists solely for the purpose of entertainment, which it offers up in spades in these vivid, meticulously dictated fight sequences.
When Buffalo Boys falters, it is often simply because the film feels so inescapably recognizable. While there’s both style and passion oozing out of its ears, the tale is never one that favors originality. Even in its strongest moments, the audience can’t help recalling the cinematic lineage that inspired Wiluan, both that of classic Hollywood Westerns and of bold, effervescent martial arts films. Still, it’s difficult to rebuke the level of joy and verve on display as the film celebrates the medium as a whole, reveling in the strange and beautiful alchemy of movie magic.
Buffalo Boys skillfully capitalized on its Indonesian setting, resisting the urge to bite off more of the political context of its backdrop than it can chew, and what’s more, it’s genuinely thrilling. There are many goals a film can serve, and this one seems to be preoccupied with pure, unabashed enjoyment, a decision that led to its chief triumphs (as well as its inevitable dismissal by Oscar voters). It may not lead to any grand revelation about colonialism, but it certainly is a wild and electrifying journey.