There is no denying the spectacle that modern Hollywood blockbusters are capable of producing. However, I believe the action displayed in Asian cinema has consistently been a step above those we typically see in Hollywood, despite these movies more limited budgets. The shaky-cam technique and multiple quick cuts prevalent in many Hollywood action films, like the Bourne franchise, can often make it a challenge to decipher what is happening onscreen.
Conversely, the Asian action films pioneered by various Asian legends like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan are often seen as a cut above the rest. Films like Ip Man by Wilson Yip, 13 Assassins by Takashi Miike, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon by Ang Lee are frequently praised for their stunt work and have become synonymous with great action.
However, if you were to quiz the general public about their favourite Asian action stars, you will most likely hear the same few household names popping up frequently – Bruce Lee, Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, and Michelle Yeoh, as their popularity extends beyond the Asian borders.
While these stars deserve their fame, there are also many great action talents in Asia who deserve an equal share of the spotlight. In recent years, Indonesia has emerged as one of the hotspots for emerging action talents in Asian cinema. You may even have recognised names like Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais, and Yayan Ruhian appearing in major Hollywood movies like Mortal Kombat and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The rise of these local action stars came as no surprise to fans of Indonesia cinema, as they have borne witness to many stunning action set pieces expertly executed by these rising talents. There are even several arts writing essays and videos that meticulously breaks down what makes these action films so good.
However, if you are unfamiliar with Indonesian cinema and unsure of where to start, fret not. Let me share some of the best action movies that showcase the amazing and jaw-dropping action talent in Indonesia. If you are a fan of action thrillers, you owe it to yourself to check these films out.
The Raid: Redemption (2011)
When it comes to action thrillers, The Raid franchise, directed by Gareth Evans, is an all-time favourite. The prominence of this franchise in action cinema has even led to talks of a Hollywood adaptation. And for newcomers to Indonesian action films, there is no better place to start.
The Raid: Redemption, which was released in 2011, is the first entry in the franchise and, in my opinion, is the more intimate and focused of the two movies. As the title suggests, the film chronicles a raid conducted by a small S.W.A.T-like task force to infiltrate and attack a high-rise building owned by cold-blooded drug lords in the slums of Jakarta.
Everything about this film is an astonishing work of art – from the single location shooting and the set design to the pitch-perfect action choreography and stunt work performed by the likes of Iko Uwais, Yayan Ruhian, Joe Taslim, and the rest of the cast.
The camerawork is an underrated but vital component in capturing great action on film, and this movie has this in spades. If you like action scenes that get more complex and more intense as the film goes on, then The Raid: Redemption is the one movie you shouldn’t miss!
You are going to see Iko Uwais’ name being featured multiple times and for good reasons, as the man is a phenomenal action talent. And Headshot is another masterpiece in Uwais’ long list of memorable action films.
This 2016 hit – directed by the Mo Brothers – focuses on Abdi (Iko Uwais), a man with a traumatic past who is suffering from partial memory loss. And as countless films have reminded us, no matter how hard we try, we can never escape our past.
Eventually, Abdi is hunted down by violent gangsters who have an axe to grind with him, leading to the capture of his physician, Dr Ailin (Chelsea Islan). To protect the doctor who saved his life, Abdi is forced to embark on a rollercoaster battle against a criminal syndicate.
With Uwais as the lead, it is safe to expect top-notch action. Uwais’ martial arts skills are once again on full display, with plenty of brutal action sequences involving a variety of weaponry – one action scene involving fists and a baton is a particular highlight.
The film is anchored by the strong chemistry between the two leads, Uwais and Islan, providing fans with a tinge of romance and two likeable protagonists to root for amidst the wanton violence displayed throughout the movie.
The Night Comes For Us (2018)
Iko Uwais is featured prominently in this film, but he isn’t the only Indonesian action talent who can carry a movie. Joe Taslim, another household name, demonstrates his action and acting chops in this 2018 film directed by one half of the famous Mo Brothers – Timo Tjahjanto.
The Night Comes For Us follows the story of a top organised crime enforcer, Ito (Joe Taslim), who decides to turn his back on his former life as an assassin to protect an innocent young girl caught up in the seedy underworld of organised crime in Indonesia.
This decision angers Ito’s former boss, who sends a group of thugs and a rising gang prospect – Arian – played by Uwais to hunt down and eliminate Ito and the young girl. While the basic premise is fairly by-the-numbers, the film was able to weave together a series of brutal action scenes that are not for the faint of heart.
Additionally, Taslim and Uwais garnered numerous positive reviews for their exceptional performances in the film. Each of their respective action sequences is thrilling and guaranteed to leave you on the edge of your seat, with the pair’s climactic fight featuring plenty of hard-hitting action that will leave you with plenty to applaud but also grimace.
With the advent of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), superhero films have never been more popular than they are now. Just take a look at Spider-Man: No Way Home’s box office intake, which has exceeded USD$1.5 billion despite the ongoing pandemic impacting the film industry’s box office revenue.
And if you are a fan of the genre, then you’ll surely love Gundala, a 2019 superhero action movie directed by Joko Anwar. While films from this genre are typically fantastical in nature, and this movie does feature several such elements, Gundala is more grounded – ala Christopher Nolan’s famous Dark Knight Trilogy.
A neo-noir superhero movie based on the comics character created by Harya Suraminata in the 1960s, Gundala follows the story of Sancaka (Abimana Aryasatya), an orphan who was abandoned by his mother after the death of his father. This experience and his upbringing have shaped his outlook on life, causing him to prioritise his safety above the needs of others.
However, the discovery of his superhuman powers and the rampant injustice prevalent in his city will force Sancaka to make a tough decision – will he continue to look out for numero uno, aka himself, or rise up to become the hero of the oppressed in this time of need?
While the premise of Gundala is riddled with tropes that are a staple of the genre, the movie is still worth a watch for its well-executed action scenes and its terrific use of Indonesian culture in an action-packed superhero narrative.
Despite its initial slow pacing, this film will hook you as soon as it starts going, and the story has several twists that will surprise you as it barrels towards a bittersweet conclusion. Aryastya delivers a fantastic performance as a reluctant hero who has a great responsibility thrust onto him, providing a relatable lead to anchor the film for the audience.
These amazing action films I have shared will undoubtedly leave many action fans on the edge of their seats with their frantic and high-octane action sequences. However, these films are just the tip of the iceberg, with plenty more great action films in Indonesia and beyond for you to see and discover!