While the growth quantity is insignificant, the developing quality of Indonesian action films are noteworthy. Pencak silat action sequences became a major breakthrough through films such as Gareth Evans’ “The Raid” series (2011-2014), Timo Tjanjahto’s “Headshot” (2016), and “The Night Comes for Us” (2018). It became an inspiration for Hollywood film production, from Matthew Vaughn’s “Kingsman: The Secret Service” (2014) to Gavin O’ Connor’s “The Accountant” (2016). Yet, there’s never been a notable film that delivers the traditional, or at least mythical, pencak silat until “Pendekar Tongkat Emas” (or internationally known as “The Golden Cane Warrior”) was released in 2014.
The film’s action might not be as breathtaking or revolutionary as “The Raid” series. But why should it be? It’s a film that is able to stand on its own, giving the feels of 1980s-2000s wuxia films from directors such as Zhang Yimou or Lau Kar-leung, yet having its own color through the setting of Indonesia’s Hindu-Buddhist civilization. The costume and production felt grand and diverse while still staying true to Indonesian traditionalism. With beautiful cinematography that captures the beauty of Sumba, there’s an epic feel and adventure to the film that makes it irresistible to watch.
The A-list cast here also did not disappoint. Reza Rahadian, as always, never disappoints. Tara Basro felt underutilized (to be discussed later), but is a great match as Reza’s partner. Nicholas Saputra, similar to his character in “Ada Apa Dengan Cinta?” (2002), still kept his coolness. And as for the legendary Christine Hakim…the film opening works because of her presence. Meanwhile, the newcomer Eva Celia, while appearing stiff at some parts, is passable as the main character. Perhaps the most fun character to watch is Aria Kusumah as Angin, who is given little dialogue but always gets his gestures right.
Possibly what makes this film unable to stand tall with other Indonesian action films is the action sequences itself that fails to live up to its potential because of editing. The action choreography is obviously there, but the edit never feels right, with many cuts when the action is being delivered. It is understandable to cut at certain difficult movements since most of the actors do not have a martial background (especially Christine Hakim, age 57 at that time. Do you wish she got killed for doing stunts?!) But it never becomes as intense as it should be. Not as horrible as “Taken 3” (2014), but it does remove the escapism entertainment.
The story also became an issue, at least in the second half. It’s merely a simple story of an aging martial art master (Christine Hakim) who picks her third student to inherit a legendary weapon, angering the two which leads to an attempt to steal said weapon. I came in blinds so when the two students suddenly appeared as the antagonists, it caught me cold, wondering where the film would direct next. But that’s it. More than that, the screenwriter wrote mostly one-dimensional characters with almost no development until the ending. To fill in the gap, the film mostly shows a time lapse of changing landscape that undeniably visually-pleasing, but serves nothing for the story. And then there’s a sudden appearance in the ending that just gives a “WTF, there’s no indication of why the hell he suddenly appeared out of nowhere.” All in all, a very disappointing film, and I could understand why it failed at box-office despite its top-tier casting.
Nevertheless, ‘Pendekar Tongkat Emas’ is a film that dares to cross its boundaries in Indonesia’s action film industry, spawning producers’ courage to produce films such as ‘212 Warrior’. It’s definitely not perfect (and quite disappointing actually) but it’s still a watchable film that exceeds far from low-grade Hollywood action films.