Movie Review: Buffalo Boys is an Indonesian Western with a lot of Promise. But Does it Deliver?

Buffalo Boys is the directorial debut of Mike Wiluan, a Singaporean producer who has had his hand in a slew of films and television shows coming out of the region (yes, including a producer credit on Crazy Rich Asians). He was also involved in making last year’s abysmal Beyond Skyline, a movie that had all the basic ingredients for being a fun little sci-fi B-thriller: home-grown Indonesian action star, Iko Uwais, spin-kicking giant bio-mechanical aliens in the face; Frank Grillo, to give the movie a Marvel-adjacent feel; the Indonesian government even allowed them to shoot in and around the iconic temples of Prambanan, although the film tries to pass it off as part of the Golden Triangle. The script was full of the kind of ridiculous schlock that sometimes turns into cult classic gold, like a baby that ages into a 3-year old in a single day.

And yet, although the ingredients were there, the final product was not very good. The reason I’m harping on this is because when I watched Buffalo Boys, even though it is a much better movie, I walked away with a similar impression: the basic ingredients were all there to make a really good film, but somehow the execution failed to live up to the potential.

So this film starts off with a pretty strong premise: it’s a fairly straightforward Western, transposed to the Indonesian island of Java and mashed up with Javanese mythology and colonial history. Set in the 1800s, it opens with a fairly kinetic scene featuring a pair of Indonesian brothers (Ario Bayu and Yoshi Sudarso) on a moving train snaking through the Old West, engaged in some bare-knuckle boxing chicanery with a large white man. This quickly establishes the Western flavor of the movie before their elderly uncle whisks them back to their ancestral homeland of Java to reclaim their birthright from the Dutch, who killed their father and forced their uncle into exile many years ago. Eventually, after meeting up with some local villagers and getting the lay of the land, they head into town to get that sweet sweet revenge against the dastardly Dutch colonial official, Van Trach, and his band of evil henchmen.

Using the visual language and tropes of a Western to set a revenge tale in colonial Java is practically overflowing with possibilities. Java is a beautiful, mystical place steeped in a deep mythology and history that should be the perfect setting for something like this. And while there are some gorgeous establishing shots of smoldering volcanic valleys a lot of this rich back-drop is wasted by confining the action to a couple of underwhelming sound stages. I think my main problem with this film is the quality of the production design. For an Indonesian production, it has a respectable budget — but the sets still look somehow badly lit, small and distinctly unimpressive. I know that Indonesian films can still have high standards of production design, even on limited budgets, so one ends up leaning toward the conclusion that this was just badly executed. Why didn’t they shoot on location more? Why did they waste the natural beauty of the Javanese countryside by shooting in these really artificial-looking sound stages, giving the film a cut-rate 1980s BBC mini-series vibe?

Plot-wise there were some weaknesses that made me scratch my head, as they wasted potentially worthwhile pay-offs. Early on in the film, when the movie was still dangling its promise front and center, there is a gorgeously filmed scene of a veiled person riding a buffalo in a field while effortlessly firing an arrow from a bow. The veil comes off to reveal this is actually a local village woman, played by Pevita Pearce. Now, you would expect that this bit of foreshadowing is going to pay off down the road, as our buffalo girl swings into action at the end using her previously established skill set to save the day. But this never happens. This idea that she is a skilled rider/warrioress is basically dropped from the story going forward, as the titular Buffalo Boys get all the glory, and monopolize all the buffalo-riding. Meanwhile, a scene about her clashing feelings of identity about being a woman in a man’s world plays out on yet another underwhelming sound stage in which the dialogue about gender and identity falls as heavily as a block of ice. This just struck me as peculiarly weak or lazy plotting, and in general it is more generally reflected in the overall structure of the film. Given the potential of the premise, this lack of any real innovation or surprise or nuance was a bit of a let-down.

The tone also left something to be desired. The movie wants to be a propulsive action romp (it ends with a ridiculously over-the-top shoot out that could have been a lot more effective with just a touch more restraint and thought), splashed with both comedic elements and the tragic weight of colonial history. So you get scenes that are meant to be weighty and serious — for instance, where the bodies of local farmers who refused to be exploited by the Dutch in the production of cash crops at the expense of their own livelihoods are strung up along a road leading to a village — shouldered up next to the Mr. Bean comedy antics of the two brothers swatting scorpions off each other, or the extremely excessive scenery-chewing of the villanous idiot-henchman played by Indonesian screen staple Alex Abbad. Walking this line — propulsive action plotting, some lighter moments and a message which in this case is about the horrors of colonialism — is a tricky proposition for anyone and unfortunately the film missed the mark by quite a bit.

Having said all that, it is still a relatively entertaining movie. Even if it doesn’t quite come together, it is fun to see the Western transposed to a Javanese setting. It’s fun to see sound-staged Java populated by nefarious and interesting-looking henchmen, especially the saloon owner and Van Trach’s right-hand man. That’s a really important part of a Western — building out a little universe of seedy, dodgy bad guys so they can be satisfyingly gunned down later in the murky dusk of a cowboy sunset. So even if the film doesn’t rise to its promise, it executes a few of the genre staples relatively competently — the martial arts fight scenes are probably worth the price of admission, I’d say.

I guess, for me, I walked out disappointed not because the film is objectively terrible, like Skyline. It’s just that there was so much more they could have done my mashing up the Western in a Javanese setting, the way Mouly Surya did with Marlina the Murderer. Especially when you consider a lot of the big names in Indonesian cinema turned out for the film, and that it was equipped with a relatively large budget, the fact that the best they could do was generate a fairly vanilla action movie with underwhelming production values designed, perhaps badly, to appeal to an international audience — well, it’s just hard not to be bothered by the thin nagging thought of what could have been.