Mike Wiluan’s Buffalo Boys is a pulpy, Wild West-inspired revenge thriller by way of Javanese commemoration. As a directorial debut, it’s enjoyable enough when quad-barrel shotguns blast crooked gentrifiers through saloon windows. As a complete “legends are born” horseback – er, buffaloback – adventure, glossy surface-value filmmaking charts plottable highs and lows without much introspection worth digging into. It’s a knee-high wade into familiar waters, but explosive action sequences are Wiluan’s continued saving grace. Two brothers on a quest to avenge their father, a dusty road paved with Dutch indiscretions over historic Indonesian provinces. Worth the bullets-and-hatchets fireworks nonetheless.
In the early years of Dutch and Indonesian relations, many indigenous villagers were wronged by European “settlers.” One of those failed is Arana (Tio Pakusadewo), who swears retribution for his slain brother at the hands of a military tyrant named Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker). Decades later – after exile in America – Arana returns to Java with his brother’s sons Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso). The three “outsiders” come to town ready for a fight, only to witness how bad circumstances have truly become without proper intervention. Time for Van Trach and his hooligans to pay once and for all – very, very horribly.
By mixing English and native dialogue, it’s obvious to tell where Wiluan draws inspiration. Jamar and Suwo are confident pistoleros who utter lines like “You thinkin’ what I’m thinkin’?” and engage in dramatic beats that service a very pedestrian genre formula. This is where Buffalo Boys meanders most, as outlaws and leathery accents become lost in expected conventions. A brotherly scuffle while splashing around rushing river currents or abusive colonization horrors that turn from implications to severe examples of the evils Wiluan’s heroes aim to cease. Slight investment, not much twisting, but as stated before, you’re here for the attention to more exciting happenings. Wiluan won’t cheat you out of such fight choreography or gunsmoke fury.
As the West was once won, saddlebag surprises and holstered hand-cannons deal their fair share of damage – but Indonesian cultures are not whitewashed as Dutch imparters might hope. Buffalo Boys is just as much about duck-and-dive shootouts as it is sultan-taught swashbuckling and sword clanging. East meets West, with equal punishment inflicted no matter the means. Eyes are popped with well-aimed trigger pulls. Soldier limbs are hacked off and executioner heads decapitated. Wiluan has no trouble splashing white socialite dresses with thick red mists or riddling dapper bowler-hatted gentlemen full of frayed holes. It’s the best of both worlds. You’ll get the thrill of breakneck chases, acrobatic hand-to-hand combat and gruesome energies powered by nothing but justice. An exciting high-intensity hybrid.
As a folktale reminder, Buffalo Boys intends to unearth lessons of barbaric Dutch rulers who left farmers to rot in metal cages if they didn’t char rice crops to make room for more lucrative opium harvesting. It’s meant to show warrioress women who were forced to conceal their gender. The “registering” – AKA branding – of innocents, sexual abuse of slave women and manipulation of “fair and just” laws as far as generals like Van Trach saw. Jamar, Suwo and Arana return to Java with a purpose – freedom from white devils who believed in nothing but their own disgusting kingdom. It’s enough to empower the “Buffalo Boys” along their journey even if we’ve heard such oppression before. Right down to the public hangings and outright disrespect of the dead.
Kiona (Pevita Pearce), of course, represents another motivation for Suwo as he immediately crushes on the deadly female archer. They jab over a man’s societal expectation to grow courageous and heroic versus a woman who must pursue childbirth and family duties. They feign coyness for all of one unsmooth handshake greeting (“That’s the hand she wipes her [blank] with…”). Admittedly, it’s a tidy little “romance in a time of bloodshed” arc that paints neither as a lesser individual – better than Arana’s own reunion later on which strikes him unable to eliminate Van Trach when crosshairs are pinned. Frankly, Buffalo Boys could have been half the length if Arana planted a mission-ending slug into Van Trach’s head instead of going oddly melodramatic. Hence some of my previous mention of “overplayed” angles.
Cinematography (by John Radel) is a major upsell to Buffalo Boys’ credit, scorched and burned with expressive auburns or lush farmland greens. Multiple shots could be clipped for prosperity – two characters laying in bed as surrounding flames circle close, Jamar standing smack-center atop a waterfall, as Wiluan’s world comes to life with rapid character. Clothing designed to reflect Mad Max but with more rawhide materials. Plenty of twirly bartender mustaches, modded Old West rocket launchers that in no way could have existed, and scoundrel dressings as children might imagine when playing “cowboys and Indians.” Artistic expressionism goes hand-in-hand with ass-kicking to deliver the one-two punch Wiluan so desperately needs to be more than “just another homeward bound rumble.”
For those reasons, Buffalo Boys chews sandy grit and fills spittoons much like the rest, but wrangles just enough of its secret ingredients to rise a cut above. Not a major cut, but worth an action lover’s night out. The heroes, the villains, you’ve seen them all before. Now see them wage a Javanese homeland war so very influenced by John Wayne six-shooters and the bootstrap swagger that comes along with ‘em. Nothing wrong with a little B-grade heroism when the mood strikes.
/Film Rating: 6.5 out of 10