An anachronistic hodgepodge of genres, tropes, and bad filmmaking techniques, “Buffalo Boys” doesn’t just squander its opportunities, it napalms them into oblivion. Indeed, whatever potential existed with the premise isn’t just destroyed, it is fired in a blazing hell-storm from which no living organism could hope to escape the consumption of oxygen and life. And while a few fun martial arts scenes pepper the effort, they are subsumed by an overall product that is riddled with plot holes, choppy cuts, laughable acting, and villains so evil that they’d make Skeletor blush.
“Buffalo Boys” opens on a train in 1860 California, where brothers Suwo (Yoshi Sudarso) and Jamar (Ario Bayu) are brawl-hustling for some cash. Indonesian by appearance, their outward manner nevertheless paints the brothers as classic Western cowboys by everything ranging from their American accents to their quick-draw pistol work. Some trouble finds them, however, and their elderly uncle, Arana (Tio Pakusadewo), convinces the pair to return with him to Java, where he fled with the boys when they were just infants.
A flashback establishes that Arana just barely escaped Indonesia with Suwo and Jamar some twenty years earlier following the murder of the boys’ father at the hands of a ruthless Dutch prefect. Tortured by his inability to save his brother, Arana seeks to return to Java to face what he left behind all those years ago. Yet when the trio arrives home six months after their departure from California, they find that little has changed, and the trouble that originally drove them out remains.
As presented in “Buffalo Boys,” the native Indonesian population is at the mercy of the brutal Dutch colonizers, who brand their subjects like cattle, rape the women at will, and generally run a quasi-genocidal regime. Putting aside the real history of the region under Dutch colonial control, which is indeed atrocious, the swashbuckling tone and posture of the film belay any real investment in what’s going on here. The heroes are so thoroughly good, while the villains are so appallingly bad, that there is never really any doubt about how this will all play out. Scenes of sexual assault and starvation politics are interspersed with ass-kicking fight vignettes, making the whole thing feel like if James Bond were dropped into the middle of “Schindler’s List.”
What the audience is left with as a result is a predictable shoot-em-up “Western” in the east, where martial arts and “Old West” aesthetics merge into a muddled mélange of choppy editing, uneven acting, ludicrous character work, and problematic social messaging. Significant plot elements make no sense whatsoever, like how Arana could know where his brother is buried since he fled the country only minutes after the execution, or how a small shack completely surrounded could allow for the escape of people “out the back.” Making matters worse, costumes and English nomenclature seen/heard do not conform to the period presented, which is to say nothing of the “cowboy” culture presented here (director Mike Wiluan should put a trigger warning for historians before the credits roll on this thing).
Anachronistic cowboy tropes aside, the presentation of weapons is laughable, and besides entirely fictional pieces, the film includes several designs that were over a decade away from invention in 1860/61 (the boxlock mechanism of the shotguns is an easy one to spot, as is the prevalence of metal cartridges). This probably isn’t enough to throw casual viewers out of the universe “Buffalo Boys” creates, yet it does show how unmoored the movie is from its history. Wiluan, who seems earnest in his desire to introduce his audience to very real colonial atrocities, undercuts his message time and again by coloring the script with elements that can only be described as comic book-esque.
As “Buffalo Boys” wraps up, it becomes increasingly clear that the seed of this movie was the combination of high noon shootouts and Western posturing in an Indonesian setting, which is fine in and of itself, yet doesn’t work within the framework of this particular story. It’s hard to have a high-kicking, gun-twirling good time when genocide percolates in the background, after all. And while a few gorgeous wide shots of the countryside make the film nice to look at from time to time, this and a handful of well-staged fight scenes can’t save it from itself. [F]