Take the brilliant stunt choreography of Indonesian action film The Night Comes for Us (2018), the intrigue of Indonesian thriller The Raid: Berandal (2014), and mix with superhero elements you know from various Marvel and DC storylines and you’ll get something akin to writer/director Joko Anwar’s (Impetigore) Gundala. Though it had its international premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, Gundala is finally making its way to the U.S. via home entertainment distributor Well Go USA (Burning, The Witch: Subversion, Ip Man: Finale) and bringing with it the hopeful start of a potential eight-film franchise in which the lightning-powered superhero serves as the jumping off point (think Iron Man but without Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury tying it together). The end result is ambitious and entertaining, is extremely adult with its depictions of violence and loss, and is undoubtedly aware of its comic origins with its larger-than-life characterizations. This modern adaptation of creator Harya “Hasmi” Suraminata’s comic is not as family-friendly as its American counter-parts, willing to show the violence that breeds villainy and the indifference of good men, but it’s just as entertaining due to its willingness to get real.
Sancaka (Muzakki Ramdhan) has not had an easy life. First, his protest-leading father is betrayed by his friends and is then murdered. Next, his mother fails to return from an out-of-town job opportunity, leaving Sancaka to fend for himself. But when he tries to do the right thing like his parents taught him, the other children living on the street don’t share his same kindness, often responding with excessive violence. After years of bouncing from one street corner to another, Sancaka (Abimana Aryasatya) eventually learns to keep his head down amid the increasingly growing strife around him and block it out. Except trouble is coming to Jakarta from the shadows and it will take someone incredibly special to fight back, someone who will stand up for the poorest among us, someone like Sancaka who can channel lightning and infuse his body with abilities greater than any normal person. A hero called Gundala.
This is not the first attempt at translating the story of Gundala for theaters, which goes to the 1981 Liliek Sudjio-directed Gundala Putra Petir, but this is the first to attempt to tie the Indonesian hero to other Indonesian stories. Wisely, Anwar’s script doesn’t try to world-build on the myths and legends to come, striving instead to craft an action-adventure story grounded by Sancaka’s personal journey of pain, isolation, and eventual healing. This translates to a lot of time spent with Ramdhan, showing the audience just how Sancaka comes to live on his own, how he learns to fight, and setting the stage for him to accept that which terrifies him most: lightning. Through the film, the lighting is presented as both the kind of thing that a child might be terrified of, but also the chaos of the world that cannot be contained or controlled. At one point, adult Sancaka even refers to the lightning as coming for him. The characters, and even the audience, might brush it off as childhood fear, but the narrative pushes the notion of the evitable or destined. That, as people, we either take a stand when the time comes or we run. Sancaka’s eventual realization of becoming strengthened by lightning and his growing control over it implies a level of acceptance and self-actualization that is empowering to observe as an audience member. What’s particularly striking about Gundala is how the villain is not one the hero knows or, until late, comes into any direct contact with. There isn’t an Obadiah Stane-type twist, though it would be fair to describe Bront Palarae’s Pengkor as Gundala’s opposite — equally raised in violence, but turning into it instead of running from it. Sancaka runs from responsibility, whereas Pengkor sees himself as a uniter from the shadows, the ultimate fighter for the people, something which Gundala comes to represent quite publically. But where Sancaka is imbued with superhuman gifts thanks to a regular dose of lightning, Pengkor has a permanent facial and body scar from fire burns. One can channel natural forces without harm, whereas the other cannot. As the audience watches Sancaka grow into his heroism, they also observe Pengkor’s plan, the paths of the two clearly intended to collide, but do so patiently, allowing the narrative to progress individually and connecting naturally.
One thing that bothered this reviewer while watching Gundala is the presentation of Pengkor, but only because of his disfigurement. The character could easily be presented evil without it, especially because the disfigurement is not the reason other characters recoil from him. However, given some time to consider Pengkor as a whole within Gundala, the character doesn’t fall into any of the usual villain-with-a-disability tropes. He doesn’t hate the world because of his disfigurement, nor does he consider his place in the world lacking because of it. His rage comes from the violence that others do and get away with. In contrast with Sancaka, who comes out of every lightning strike stronger and more resilient, Pengkor’s physical disfigurement is an ever-present reminder of what happens when the morally corrupt have power. This is perhaps why he took others, vulnerable like he once was, under his wing to create his empire, creating another contrast to Sancaka, who hides alone. Too often American superhero stories act as though the disfigurement is enough to make someone a villain without exploring other aspects of the character. Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) tries to do this with Hannah John-Kamen’s Ava/Ghost, but too often her pain (the root of her issue) is pushed aside in favor of feats of villainy. Anwar’s script makes no excuses for Pengkor’s violence, merely providing it as the reflection of Sancaka.
As entertaining as Gundala is, there is one issue worth mentioning and it’s a strange one: the stunt work. Believe me, I’m as surprised as anyone, especially considering that Indonesian cinema has released some of the most engaging and creative action films of the last few years: Merantau, The Raid, Headshot, Triple Threat, and the ones from the start of this review: The Raid: Berandul and The Night Comes for Us. These films, especially The Raid films, had a huge impact on America cinema. You liked John Wick: Chapter 3? Probably because the motorcycle sequence is an homage to 2017’s Korean thriller The Villainess and the two Shinobi were played by Cecep Arif Rahman (Berandul) and Yayan Ruhian (The Raid). It’s strange, then, that several of the fights in Gundala — as impressive as they are in terms of flow and violence — too often look staged rather than organic. Maybe it’s because Aryasatya’s Sancaka began almost every fight by ducking under a swinging arm that it began to look like he was ducking before the punch was even thrown. That’s not a good look in an action film, especially one where Rahman is one of the fight choreographers along with Andrew Sulaiman (The Dead Undead). The majority of Aryasatya’s stunt work is natural, something anyone who’s seen The Night Comes for Us could predict. It’s just so strange that several of the fights take on traits of elaborate dances instead of violent fisticuffs. Don’t worry, though, there’s plenty of creativity on display, so even those few moments of incongruity don’t bring down the whole by much.
The bonus materials, while not totally in-depth, do offer insight where it counts. Like most Well Go USA releases, it comes with three previews for other films and multiple trailers for Gundala, specifically the International and U.S. versions. Very quickly, an astute observer will notice that the U.S. audience is being sold on the action and spectacle, while the international audience is being sold on the drama within the story. The three-part “Production Vlog” lasts barely two and a half minutes and the majority of what you’ll see is explored more deeply in the four-part “Behind the Scenes” featurettes. Here you’ll listen to principle cast and crew discuss the process behind the making of the film over the 53-day shoot, the adaptation process, casting, and even the stunt work. If you’re a fan of Rahman’s work, “Part Four” is where you’re going to want to start. It only lasts about five minutes, but he and Sulaiman discuss how they mixed the martial arts style of silat — the primary style in both of the Raid films — with street fighting, and a little bit of the extreme silliness found in both Chinese and Japanese cinema. All four of the behind the scenes featurettes are padded with scenes from the film, so the actual space for information is less than you’d want. Given the obvious world-building going on via production design, character arcs, and the narrative, exploring more of these aspects from the inside perspective would be more ideal. That said, at least we are allowed a peek inside the process.
Some might suggest that in the absence of new Marvel and DC big-screen fare, audiences may want to give something like Gundala a try. I’d say, give it a try because it offers something fresh, new, and certainly exciting with the possibilities. When the choreography flows as intended, the action grows increasingly exciting. The story balances the kind of darkness and light that makes any superhero tale engaging. Most impressively, the stakes are kept local rather than on a global scale and, in so doing, reasonable urgency is maintained throughout the runtime. Though the ending of the film may take a few extra minutes to set up what comes next, you won’t feel like the central narrative was short-handed in favor of franchise-building. Instead, with the origin of Gundala complete, the audiences are teased with the prospect of more and, frankly, I’d like to see it.
Gundala Blu-ray Special Features
- Four-Part Behind The Scenes (20:47)
- Three-Part Production Vlog (2:22)
- Two (2) Trailers: International and U.S.
- Three (3) Well Go USA Previews
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital July 28th, 2020.
For more information, head to the official Gundala website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.