Prolific hitmaker Joko Anwar (“Satan’s Slaves,” “Impetigore”) further cements his reputation as one of the non-English-speaking world’s foremost fantasy filmmakers with “Gundala,” an action-packed and emotionally satisfying adaptation of the treasured Indonesian comicbook created by Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata. Set in a bleak future-now Jakarta, where the lightning-powered superhero is the city’s last hope against corrupt politicians and a megalomaniac crime boss, “Gundala” packs a few too many characters and side-stories into the mix but as the first entry in a planned series it’ll do very nicely. On the strength of this, a successful franchise with strong international appeal could be in the making. After attracting 1.7 million admissions in domestic theatrical release in late 2019, Anwar’s latest hit will land on Well Go USA’s streaming platform on July 28.
Featuring in 23 comics published between 1969 and 1982, Gundala has made just one prior screen appearance, in Lilek Sudijo’s cheesy but enjoyable “Gundala the Son of Lightning” in 1981. As with most Indonesian superheroes, this crimefighter’s enemies are the rich, corrupt, privileged human elite rather than monsters or alien invaders.
The film’s terrific first half-hour establishes the working-class origins of Sancaka (Muzakki Ramdhan, excellent), a youngster who’s unusually frightened of lightning and lives in a wretched, hell-hole vision of Jakarta that’s overrun by crime and overwhelmed by grinding poverty. In scenes that tug at the heart and quicken the pulse, Sancaka watches his honest, morally upright father die at the hands of security forces after leading factory workers on a strike.
Tragedy is soon followed by deep anguish when the boy’s mother, Kurniati (Marissa Anita), disappears after financial desperation drives her to take up sex work. Now a street kid, Sancaka is taught self-defense by Awang (Fariz Fadjar), an older boy who tells him to never trust rich people and talks about finding a safe haven “somewhere in the South East.”
With the scene nicely set, Anwar fast-forwards about 20 years. Sancaka (Abimana Aryasaty, “Belenggu”) leads a lonely life as a printing press security guard and looks the other way when he sees trouble. That’s until goons start menacing his neighbor, Wulan (Tara Basro), a market vendor and solo guardian of her kid brother Teddy (Bimasena Susilo).
A few lightning bolts later, our man finds superhuman fighting strength and the ability to recover from stab wounds and anything else thrown at him. All roads lead to Pengkor (Bront Palarae), a disfigured criminal with most of Jakarta’s politicians in his pocket and colorful killers including hypnotist Kamal (Ari Tulang), concert violinist Sulaiman (Rendra Bagus Pamungkas) and a squad of orphan assassins at his disposal.
Action fans won’t be disappointed by the frequency and quality of combat scenes choreographed by Cecep Arif Rahman and Andrew Sulaiman and excitingly photographed by Ical Tanjung, who’s now shot five of Anwar’s eight features. If anything, they’re a little too prevalent, resulting in crammed storytelling around the cheerfully far-fetched central plot of Pengkor planning to inject the nation’s rice supply with a serum that will ultimately create a society bereft of all morality.
Sancaka’s appealing relationship with Wulan and the ongoing mystery about his mother’s fate are kept on track, but elsewhere there’s rather too much going on. Intriguing elements that get lost in the rush include Sancaka/Gundala’s involvement in a secret “House of Peace” alliance organized by conscience-stricken politician Ridwan Bahri (Lukman Sardi). The activities of Pengkor’s slick partner-in-crime Ghazul (Ario Bayu) contribute little other than setting things up for a sequel.
Still, “Gundalan” delivers strongly for the vast majority of the running time and offers an engaging and exciting offshore alternative to American superhero franchises. Anwar includes some lovely wry humor around the evolution of Gundala’s costume, which is cobbled from bits of rubber and held together by duct tape, but wisely avoids throwing too many wisecracks around.
Produced on an amazingly low reported budget of about $2.1 million, the film looks and sounds great. Tanjung’s striking widescreen images of downtrodden humans trapped in a city dominated by brutalist public buildings, massive apartment blocks and gargantuan factories constitute a powerful vision of hell on earth. The end credits include a memorial notice for Khikmawan Santosa, sound designer of more than 200 features. His outstanding work here makes a great contribution to the first Indonesian feature presented in Dolby Atmos.