Two brothers return from far away, to a home they left when they were too young to remember, only to find it overrun with violent, corrupt outsiders who rule over their people with an iron fist and exploit every resource. Sounds like a standard western plot. And it is, but in Buffalo Boys, instead of a historical American epic, director Mike Wiluan transfers the setup to 19th century Java.
Singapore’s official Oscar entry uses a familiar genre framework but gives it a unique flavor. We have all the expected beats and tropes: gunfights, steel-eyed stare downs, grim regrets, mysterious strangers riding into town to right wrongs, and all the rest. But it also has badass martial arts, a plot so epic in scope it’s practically a Greek tragedy, examinations of gender imbalances and expectations you don’t often find in westerns, and it’s all steeped in Indonesian history and based on the horrors the people endured under Dutch colonialism.
After a quick start, the pace takes a while to fully get moving. Though it’s peppered with a few fight scenes and some tense standoffs that ultimately break into action, the first two-thirds primarily concerns itself with plot and character. Some of this works well, but just as much rings hollow and serves more to drag down the forward momentum than to sink in emotional hooks.
Ario Bayu and Yoshi Sudarso play Jamar and Suwo, who, along with their elderly uncle, Arana (Tio Pakusadewo), return from exile in the American west to avenge the long-ago death of their father at the hands of the vicious Dutch invader, Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker). There’s a love interest for Suwo, Kiona (Pevita Pearce), starts and stops, questions about motivation, and a multiple twists and turns and wrinkles along the way.
It’s all solid enough. Bayu and Sudarso have swagger and charisma and their brotherly push and pull works well against one another. Sudarso and Pearce have strong chemistry, even in a rote thread that never fully develops. Kiona pushes back against typical gender norms, but the script gives her more complexity than simply making her a badass—she can certainly handle herself in a fight, but she’s also a daughter, a sister, a woman who lives under the thumb of colonial oppressors, and all that comes with those various roles. Buffalo Boys doesn’t fall into the trap of making her just a proficient fighter and thinking that alone makes her a strong, interesting female character, which is a refreshing change. Pakusadewo’s tired, grizzled old wise uncle is just that—he’s good at it, but too often his character devolves into long-winded, distance-starring meditations on the legacy of revenge and the nature of home.
Though it takes its time and the pace ebbs and flows, when Buffalo Boys gets down to business, it gets down to business. The back third delivers on the action promise with a mixture of high-noon-style shootouts, bone-crunching martial arts throw downs, and general action mayhem. Come on, there’s axe-fighting and dudes in masks riding buffalo into pitched battles.
Buffalo Boys marks Mike Wiluan’s directorial debut, but he’s produced the likes of Headshot, The Night Comes for Us, and Beyond Skyline, so he knows his way around action. Veteran stunt performer Kazu Patrick Tang (Hard Target 2, Triple Threat) handles the choreography, and though it’s a bit over-edited at times, a go-for-broke gusto shines through. I don’t know why you need to use a canon against two dudes, but I’m glad they do. And if you want a four-barreled shotgun and old-timey version of a grenade launcher, you’re in luck.
Though the cast features cast members from The Raid movies, Macabre, and various other recent Indonesian standouts—including many of those Wiluan worked on—it never quite hits those highs. There are moments of brutality and meanness, but the camera always pulls away before fully diving in. It’s unfair to compare Buffalo Boys to those films, some of the best action movies of the current generation—what lives up to that? Still, with all the pieces in play, it never quite measures up to elevated expectations and it leaves a lingering what-could-have-been sensation.
Buffalo Boys is never as epic or sweeping as it hopes to be, nor as ruthless or brutal. Historical nuances about colonialism and oppression, echoes of which are still felt in modern Indonesia—there’s a long, dark shadow cast by imperial incursion—may be lost on western audiences, but it does provide a unique texture. Overall, it’s an entertaining, imminently watchable, if ultimately forgettable action western with its own specific spin on the genre. [Grade: B-]