Though it sounds like a chain of bro-run hot wing shacks, “Buffalo Boys” is actually a cartoony Indonesian action western with maybe a minute of total screen time showing the riding of buffalo, and seemingly half the rest of its length fetishizing cruelty and CGI violence at the expense of true gonzo style or freshly drawn archetypes.
The “boys” in co-writer/director Mike Wiluan’s sloppy 19th-century ode to dust-and-blood standoffs by way of Asian fight cinema, are a pair of brothers from Java named Jamar (Ario Bayu) and Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso). Exiled from their homeland as babies after the murder of their Sultan father at the hands of a Dutch colonizer, the duo grew up in America’s untamed badlands as railroad-building cowboys under the care of their uncle Arana (Tio Pakusadewo).
But after an opening train brawl for cash between a grime-slicked bruiser and a seemingly outmatched Jamar — the kind of semi-humorous scrap Walter Hill might have filmed — the action shifts to Indonesia, where the brothers and their uncle are intent on exacting some vengeance for their slain dad.
Following the rescue of a young woman from bandits, they become guests to her grateful father’s local community of farmers. What they find are terrorized villagers under forced labor, routinely brutalized by their Dutch overseer Captain Van Trach (Reinout Bussemaker).
Naturally, conveniently, this is the same sadist who killed their pa, and like any modern genre pic worth its oversaltedness, Van Trach is shown torturing, killing and raping with a blasé-witted, attention-grabbing malevolence we can all blame Quentin Tarantino for, and which no amount of showdown showmanship can ever satisfy as eye-for-an-eye comeuppance.
It’s safe to say Wiluan is more comfortable pushing his camera in on the scarred, bleeding back of Van Trach’s freshly whipped sex slave Seruni (Happy Salma), or lingering on the branded flesh of the village headman’s daughter Sri (Mikha Tambayong), or drawing out the shooting of a child by one of Van Trach’s evil henchmen, than caring about how enjoyable any villain’s life-ending turnabout is.
Because ultimately, the combat in “Buffalo Boys” is perfunctorily handled, seemingly designed more to showcase a digital effects crew’s blood-spurt acumen than the thrill of clever choreography. The fights are leaden, so when a movie’s bid for historical verisimilitude has already stopped at backlot-acceptable, and the character development is constrained by dumb dialogue, such meager tending-to of an Asian action flick’s primary draw is nigh unforgivable.
It’s especially head-scratching that after introducing Sri’s sister Kiona (Pevita Pearce) as a fiery woman eager to kick butt — the brothers first notice her riding a buffalo and shooting arrows simultaneously — the movie doesn’t use her in any meaningful way in its action scenes. Likewise, the story’s attempt to set up Suwo as a kind of charming underdog looking to match his taciturn older brother’s bravery barely registers as a dramatic arc.
Equally wasted in the shallow screenplay is exploring the brothers’ Americanness as an awkward cultural chasm to be bridged in a land they belong to but aren’t a part of. The most we get is a bathroom sanitation joke and comic reacting to a shopkeeper’s selling of scorpion liquor.
Lastly, a word about slow motion. Is this the most overused tool in the genre director’s quiver? Are filmmakers worried that we’re going to miss something? Is the movie only an hour long otherwise? Did the massive close-up of the guy spitting into the lens need to be cranked down to half-speed? That cutaway to boots taking a few steps? Is this a secret underwater world? Have I taken this comment as far as it can go? As in, belaboring it? Are you ready to move on? Did … I … make … my … point?
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes
Playing: Starts Jan. 11, Arena Cinelounge Sunset, Hollywood; also on VOD