Gareth Evans, Timo Tjahjanto and the New Indonesian Extreme
Not many people outside military or medical personnel know of the devastating effects a grenade can have on the body. We may imagine it or read about it or even see it in a bloodless explosion in a Captain America movie but still its effects are sanitised. The Night Comes For Us – a new Indonesian action movie released this past October – sanitises nothing. Assassin Ito (Joe Taslim) pulls the pin on a grenade attached to the belt of a cop as he is being taken away by van.
The results are devastating. Everyone in the van, barring Ito, is killed. Their bodies are eviscerated. Rendered not only limbless but featureless. This is not the beginning of some new wave of violent, blood-crazed Indonesian cinema. The wave is instead only beginning to crest and its colour is a deep, dark crimson.
To understand where this new slate of visceral, kinetic and blood-soaked style of action films came from we have to go back to 2011. Back to the film that started it. The Raid is really more stunt show than film but that only heightens the impact. Men are put through walls, thrown over balconies and left in broken, bleeding piles by the film’s heroes and villains. Directed by Welshman Gareth Evans The Raid put Indonesia on the map as the home for a newer, more brutal style of martial arts movie.
Pencak Silat is practiced throughout South-East Asia but is most famous on the Indonesian archipelago. Comparing it to the kung-fu comedy of Jackie Chan or the mesmerising Muay Thai practiced by Tony Jaa is like comparing Queensbury Rules to bareknuckle boxing. Pencak Silat is a martial art seemingly designed to kill or cripple your opponent as fast as possible. Something it’s practitioners have no problem doing in the films they star in.
The most famous martial artist to practice it is Iko Uwais. The star of Evans’ The Raid and The Raid 2 as well as Timo Tjahjanto’s Headshot and The Night Comes For Us Uwais radiates athleticism and charisma. Even in the recent American disappointment Mile 22 Iko Uwais shone through Peter Berg’s shoddy direction. Uwais may play a good guy in three out of the four films mentioned above but ‘good guy’ is a loose term in the world of Indonesian action movies.
In The Raid a squad of police men must fight their way up through an apartment block. On every floor wait criminals waiting to kill them at the behest of the apartment block’s owner. The drug lord running the show on the top floor runs out of bullets when executing people at the start of the film and instead of reloading beats the last man to death with a hammer. His chief hitman is a violent psycho called Mad Dog. In The Raid 2 the mastermind behind the convoluted plot has two assassins in his employ called Baseball Bat Man and Hammer Girl. Their names speak for themselves and the bone-crunching violence they commit with their chosen weapons.
Gareth Evans has moved away from action movies to horror with the equally brutal Apostle, released this year on Netflix, but his legacy remains and has been carried on by his friend and V/H/S 2 segment co-director Timo Tjahjanto. Tjahjanto brought an especially gory sensibility to the likes of Headshot and The Night Comes For Us as well as a murkier morality. In The Raid series Iko Uwais’ character Rama is practically the only decent person. In Tjahjanto’s films there are no decent people only assassins, gangsters and shady government operatives.
Timo Tjahjanto came up doing horror movies with co-director and co-writer Kimo Stamboel. Known as The Mo Brothers they directed some truly nasty horrors and thrillers such as Macabre and Killers before Headshot in 2016. Headshot is overlong for the damsel in distress story that it is but it makes up for it with some especially ferocious fight scenes. With Iko Uwais’ performance and choreography alongside Tjahjanto’s experience in schlock the film was guaranteed to satisfy those looking for more of what The Raid offered. The backstory of children raised to be assassins in underground bunkers and Headshot’s roster of stupidly murderous villains help a great deal too.
Tjahjanto’s solo effort The Night Comes For Us might seem to be the logical endpoint for this kind of filmmaking. After all how long can films without identifiable heroes and villains really last? Longer than anyone might expect. As violent as Tjahjanto’s recent offerings have been they still carry the core tenet of what made The Raid films so watchable: survival. Whether it’s a rookie cop or morally conflicted assassins watching these men try to survive is an engaging process even if we know we shouldn’t really be rooting for them.
People survive multiple stab wounds, gunshots and beatings in The Night Comes For Us. Joe Taslim’s Ito has betrayed his Triad by rescuing a little girl he was supposed to murder along with her village. Fast forward 40 minutes and that same girl is stabbing a man in the neck multiple times as a 10 minute fight scene ends. This same fight scene has a one-legged heroin addict called White Boy Bobby taking on a gang of hatchet-wielding gangsters singlehandedly. Elsewhere Ito is butchering men in, well, a butcher’s shop using cleavers, knives and cow bones. All of these characters have survival on the brain regardless of how close to death they may appear.
Elsewhere in the film a woman known only as The Operator – Julie Estelle in her third badass role after Headshot and The Raid 2 – knife fights two other female gangsters. One uses weighted razor wire and the other fights with a curved machete. Throats are cut, guts are spilled and fingers are severed before one woman stands battered but victorious. But it’s the fight between Joe Taslim – a former pro-Judo fighter – and Iko Uwais as his former blood brother turned mortal enemy Arian that enshrines Indonesian action as the most kinetic and brutal cinematic force on Earth.
Strikes in Pencak Silat are delivered using everything available to the fighter. Fists, feet, elbows and knees all come into play but so too do everyday objects. In the final ten-minute fight scene of The Night Comes For Us everything from wrenches to Stanley knives to thumb tacks come into play. Ito and Arian fight in a desperate whirlwind that wrings as much sweat from viewers as it does blood from the two fighters.
It’s hard to draw a comparison outside of any other Indonesian films mentioned here. The only Western example I can think of is the bathroom fight in Mission Impossible: Fallout. Examples in Asia could be Wu Jing’s blow-for-blow face-off with Frank Grillo in Wolf Warrior 2 or Donnie Yen’s MMA-inspired grudge match with Sammo Hung in SPL: Kill Zone. Still all of these lack the sheer teeth-cracking, face-disfiguring nastiness of The Night Comes For Us.
The Raid series gave Indonesian martial arts movies the momentum to start taking the world of action cinema by storm. Headshot was the stunning impact of that momentum and The Night Comes For Us is the flurry of follow-up body blows. Indonesian action movies have been launched into the stratosphere and at the rate they’re going it’ll be a long time before they come back to earth.