A basic white hat/black hat “B” western despite its novel setting in 19th-century Java, “Buffalo Boys” reps a polished directorial debut for producer Mike Wiluan that’s good fun but feels a bit generically assembled. Still, this tale of exiled brothers returning to avenge their father’s murder by evil colonialists is a colorful popcorn entertainment that should please Asian action fans even if it doesn’t rank among the best films Indonesia has had to offer in recent years. Those thirsting for an old-fashioned Western will find “Boys” diverting enough if a mite cartoonish.
Having fled assassins hired by the Dutch occupiers two decades before, Uncle Arana (Tio Pakusadewo) has raised his slain sultan brother’s two sons in America, where they’ve labored building the transcontinental railroad. Now, reserved Jamar (Ario Bayu) and amiable younger sibling Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) are strapping young men ready to claim their birthright — or at least exact sweet revenge on Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker), brutal governor of their native region.
The governor has terrorized locals into submitting to Dutch rule, which includes cultivating lucrative opium rather than life-sustaining rice, “registering” citizens via red-hot branding iron, and demanding the sexual favors of any women who attract the invaders’ fancy. Among those thus imperiled are the daughters of a village leader, expert archer Kiona (Pevita Pearce) and the rather more defenseless Sri (Mikha Tambayong). Already thoroughly degraded as the sadistic Van Trach’s mistress of many years is Seruni (Happy Salma), who turns out to have a secret in her past.
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Hiding rather absurdly in plain sight — when they’re not wearing cowboy hats, they’re skulking under conspicuous hoodies — our heroes infiltrate the nasty frontier-type town where their nemesis and his flunkies (notably Zach Lee as a long-haired hitman) base their operations. But the script provides few surprises and even less credibility, and the portrayal of the bad colonialists is predictably broad.
Yet with its superficial nods to both Hollywood and Spaghetti Western conventions, Wiluan’s film isn’t aiming for dramatic weight. It’s simple escapism with a modern attitude and a nostalgic veneer that doesn’t go much deeper than the well-toned leads looking fine in their artfully dusty leathers.
Though some of the films Wiluan has produced (particularly “Headshot”) have featured terrific action stunt-work, “Buffalo Boys” is a more lively and colorful package overall. Yet the mixed gunplay, martial arts, fisticuffs, sword fights and so forth are just another diversion alongside DP John Radel’s attractive widescreen photography and the theme-park-like period atmospherics. Both up-and-coming and veteran thesps do what’s required of them in roles that are all fairly one-note. Though Peace is presented as a tomboy who needs no protecting, the film ultimately sidelines all its women as damsels in distress.
At times “Buffalo Boys” hints at a more mythical intent that might’ve lent it a certain layered resonance. But Wiluan hedges his bets, playing the cluttered but unsophisticated script he co-wrote in literal-minded terms. The result is a movie that, while entertaining, also features quite a bit more dress-up posing than it needs to. All in all, this Eastern western is a jovial genre cocktail, but it’ll be more interesting to see if its director can bring greater nuance to whatever his next project turns out to be.