Having persuasively moved on to folk-horror spectacle, Gareth Evans seems to have abdicated the throne of Indonesian action cinema. It’s a seismic-revolution subset of martial-arts cinema featuring pencak silat, a discipline incorporating joint manipulation, throwing, bladed weapons and generally anything that leaves somebody looking like bottom-barrel bruised fruit.
Last year, co-directors Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel — known as the Mo Brothers — made their claim with Headshot, which rolled Jason Bourne, John Wick and Evans’ own Raid films into some of the sweetest cheeba possible. In their own exhaustively pummeling way, the emotions of Headshot also worked, creating the sort of film during which you catch your breath only to shout aloud some profane exclamation in awe of the onscreen action.
Tjahjanto flies solo for The Night Comes for Us, now streaming on Netflix just weeks after lighting up Fantastic Fest with reports that stopped just shy of proclaiming Tjahjanto the new god before whom all others must bow. During its opening moments, Night certainly feels like it could be the filmmaker’s definitive statement of purpose — lingering on shots of the tide, suggesting endless waves of institutional violence in Indonesia, whose undertones power the best of the nation’s output. There is also unexpected warmth early on, hugs where you expect haymakers. The score is as thickly humid with atmospheric synthesizers as anything else of late.
Plus, Night is every bit as gonzo-gory as advertised, the sort of film in which mostly severed fingers are ripped off like ratty hangnails. One particularly shocking moment of gunshot violence inside a paddy wagon of corrupt cops is guaranteed to sear onto your memory.
But as Night settles in, its quieter moments reveal themselves as little more than opportunities to introduce secondary and tertiary combatants — for most of whom it’s hard to determine motive let alone our own rooting interest. (Night is more or less divided into assassins who either suddenly soften at the sight of a little girl in trouble or those who’d just rather kill her.) And outside of that police wagon, a butcher shop and a brilliant final fight, the nonstop action is energetically presented but tends to blend together after a while like a daisy chain of entrails.
If Tjahjanto had the sprawl afforded by something like Edward Yang’s A Brighter Summer Day — or even a six-episode Netflix series — he could have given Night the right amount of context and character to complement all this carnage. He clearly wants you to feel something more about his movie than how badass it looks. As it stands, Night crams in flashbacks that do more to show the trajectories of dying bodies rather than the tragedies that bond the people still standing in the present day.
The plot introduces all manner of convolution but boils down to Ito (Joe Taslim) and Arian (Iko Uwais). Years ago, these friends volunteered their foot-and-fist services to the Triad in exchange for sparing the life of a ne’er-do-well pal who had run afoul of the smuggling operation.
At one time, Ito was “the craziest motherfucker in the harbor” and thus quickly ascends to join the Six Seas — a squad of Triad enforcers authorized to use any force necessary to maintain criminal strangleholds. But when Ito sees the aforementioned little girl — she having survived the wholesale slaughter of her village at Ito’s hands — he decides he’s had enough, spares her, slaughters his subordinates and seeks a way out. If that is to happen, Ito must, of course, evade the remaining Seas as well as Arian, now being groomed to take Ito’s place.
Taslim and Uwais are the same actors featured prominently in The Raid: Redemption; Uwais also carried the charismatic load as the lead in Headshot and choreographs the action sequences here. At times, Night seems content to leech the goodwill from those other films as far as the presence of those actors is concerned here. Taslim is a bland, workable blunt-force presence and Uwais, too boyish to ever really buy as a pureblooded villain, tinkers with his heroic tendencies as much as he can. But the canvas is just too constricted for either to break free of “recognizable actors doing cool physical stuff.” That’s before Julie Estelle (Hammer Girl from The Raid 2: Berandal) shows up as the shadowy Operator, taking on two additional female martial artists in a battle royale that is technically proficient but distressingly low on thrills.
Thankfully, Uwais’s unparalleled fight choreography elevates the climactic showdown between Ito and Arian into Raid-level brilliance — the one sequence in which Tjahjanto and Uwais weave some weariness and subtext into their truly stunning martial arts mastery. It’s the only time that any of Tjahjanto’s punches at grandiloquent Guignol truly land. The Night Comes for Us might one-up its forerunners in testicular evisceration, but it just doesn’t have their cojones.