Movie Review: The Old West visits its violence upon Indonesia in “Buffalo Boys”

A little novelty goes a long way in “Buffalo Boys,” a, violent, slow-moving East Meets West Western from Indonesia.

What do we call this sort of mash-up? A Ramen Noodles Western? 

The set-up promises gun play mixed with unconventional martial arts, Western movie tropes jammed into the colonial era Dutch East Indies. Director and co-screenwriter Mike Wiluan delivers on these, but in a humorless movie with payoffs and pacing that are more wearing than entertaining. 

We meet the brothers Suwo and Jafar on a freight car in 1860 California, staging a prize fight against the biggest brute they can find. Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) is the pretty, younger sibling. He hypes the fight. Brother Jamar (Ario Bayu) does the fighting.

You know how this goes. The locals underestimate the little foreign guy, the miracle of martial arts astounds one and all. Then the white guys want their money back.

Jamar, it turns out, has learned to be handy with a gun, too. Suwo? He’s a lover, not a fighter. The old man (Tio Pakusadewo) who raised them has been their guide and companion Out West, and he reminds them of how their father died (via flashback). 

“I don’t want to die before we set things straight,” he counsels with his dying breaths (in Malay/Indonesian, with English subtitles). Go back, find the evil Dutchman Van Trach. “Revenge is a right!”

The brothers vow to do just that. They journey home, lay low, hide their identities and remember Van Trach.

“We will find him, wherever he is! And this time we’ll be ready!”

The Dutch East Indies is exotic and primitive, with vast ancient temples and scorpion elixirs to cure what ails you. The land they return to is still under the thumb of colonialism. Villages are raided to force locals to register for forced labor, “cash crops” like sugar cane, tea, tobacco and opium displacing food crops.

The most racist colonialist of them all is Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker), given to branding his “registered labor” with a “VT.”

The brothers seek out long lost relatives, learn how to handle the local tool/weapon of choice — the machete, although any knife — especially those wavy-bladed Javanese daggers — will do if you just want to stab a guy in the eye.

Indignities and injustices pile up. Beheadings are the favored form of execution, hanging corpses until they rot is the “deterrent” the Dutch use to keep the natives in line.

As the Wild West comes to the Wild East, carnage ensues.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

Kiona (Pevita Pearce) is a veritable warrior princess and ally, a deadly archer, even when galloping along, bareback, on a water buffalo. There’s a damsel (Mikha Tambayong) for one brother to fall for, a tortured sex slave (Happy Salma) to try and free and the villain’s towering henchman (Daniel Adnan) to stare down on their way to a final showdown at the Batavia Corral.

“Are you ready?”

“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be!”

There are a lot more colonialist outrages presented here than righteous beatdowns, brawls and shootouts.

Wiluan delivers the fights — stabbings, shootings, dismemberments — with heavy doses of slo-mo and just enough blood to be convincing in their consequences. 

But “Buffalo Boys” is rather tedious going in between the fights, and those action beats are spaced too far apart. All this stuff about Suwo feeling “the pressure” to “be braver,” “be a hero,” all these horrific injustices the brothers witness before finally striking back make the picture kind of a joyless drag. 

The story beats are the same as many a revenge Western, but they feel mishandled here. We know the good guys will be goaded into fighting back before they’re ready, and that they’ll be bested in that first fight, but even that convention feels off.

What’s fun is the novelty of it all, the ride in a covered wagon in the ancient, tropical East is familiar yet exotic. A saloon, what it serves and the manner of bar fight it offers, is kind of a hoot. 

Wiluan’s idea of comic relief is the character Fakar (Alex Abbad), here to show us you can survive getting stabbed in the eye.  “Cyclops” shows up, with the bad guys, again and again as the story builds towards its climax. Which isn’t much of one, as the venal villains (and the actors playing them) register, but not enough to inflame the viewer. 

That finale has the tone the entire movie should have aimed for. It’s over-the-top, with ridiculous firearms (grenade launching shotguns in 1860 Indonesia), heroes surviving mortal wounds, the works.

But the grim performances and general humorlessness of the enterprise let the “Buffalo Boys” down long before they have their moment at high noon.

                                                         2stars1

MPAA Rating: unrated, graphic, bloody violence, rape 

Cast: Ario Bayu, Yoshi Sudarso, Tio Pakusadewo, Pevita Pearce, Reinout Bussemaker

Credits: Directed by Mike Wiluan, script by Raymond Lee and Mike Wiluan. A Samuel Goldwyn release. 

Running time: 1:42

 

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