Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot – Java Heat

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Fikri Jermadi has fond memories of Jogja, and here’s to hoping this film won’t spoil it for him.

Plenty of other reviewers noted this film as a throwback to the 1980s, when the popularity of buddy cop films was in its ascendancy. It wasn’t something that stuck out in my mind so much (if anything, I associate it as the age of the superstar, with the big budgets going largely to the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger), but all the same, films like ‘Beverly Hills Cop’ and ‘Lethal Weapon’ were staples of that era, so perhaps there is something there.

Going beyond that, it did, in a way, suggest that such films are no longer as popular. I don’t really know whether that’s true either. Yes, we’re seeing a lot more comic book and young adult adaptations, but I do feel that the basis of a buddy cop film, the chemistry between two initially reluctant protagonists, remains true in many films, from comedies like ‘The Other Guys’ to even the X-Men movies.

The middle finger is a universal language.
The middle finger is a universal language.

In ‘Java Heat’, Jake Travers (Kellan Lutz) is an American cop (or claims to be one) who happens to be on the scene of a bomb attack that claimed the life of the Sultan’s daughter, the Sultana (Atiqah Hasiholan). Initially (and continually) thought of as a suspect, he works in tandem with Lieutenant Hashim (Ario Bayu), a tough cop from Detasement 88. As an aside, this is a real-life unit was formed after the Bali bombings, so that was cool. Coming back to Hashim (lovingly shortened to Hash by Jake), he thinks his American ‘partner’ could stand being taken down a peg or two. Like it or not, both of them have to work together to achieve the same objectives: find out exactly what happened to the Sultana and why.

A key part of that equation is Malik (Mickey Rourke), a mercenary whose ultimate objectives were not that clear to begin with. A part of the reason is because…well, I couldn’t really understand him half the time. It’s probably a little early in a review to dial in to an actor’s performance, but I felt that Rourke certainly dialed this one in from afar. A pity, for it was his presence that initially drew my attention to this film.

Being an Oscar winner, he’s in a better position to pick and choose his projects, and I wondered what attracted him to this. Indonesia is a wonderful country with many interesting locations and potential cinematic stories, but it is not that common a destination for international (co-)productions.

Budak ni nak kena ni...
Budak ni nak kena ni…

I included the brackets there because the American directors and producers, Conor and Rob Allyn, are expatriates with experience and background in the Indonesian industry. In fact, they were responsible for the making of the Merah Putih trilogy. It remains a high profile silver screen exploration of Indonesian emancipation, though I do remember Diaz Hernawan banging on about its errors previously. The point is that as much as ‘Java Heat’ is promoted as an international film, I’d argue that it could (and probably should) also be seen as an Indonesian production with a smattering of international actors.

Which segues nicely back to Malik. The performance reminded me of someone like Marlon Brando, who felt that their talent was enough to carry them through scenes as and when they want to do it. I don’t know whether that’s the case here, and perhaps that is a part of his character (a volatile foreigner with a penchant as much for the sublime as the radical). Malik is aided by Achmed (Mike Muliadro), a local Muslim terrorist whose conflicts of and in faith provides an interesting, if somewhat illogically developed subplot.

The stars of the show were certainly the team of Ario and Kellan. At the very least, I could see that they made a big effort. Unfortunately, I can’t shake off Kellan’s image as a jock; at times, his demeanour and dialogue delivery reeks of an American football stud hitting the town with his pals. Is this a bad thing? Perhaps the intention had been to represent a certain kind of American and America, one that is not entirely aware of and in tune with local sensibilities.

Cops who aren't buddies.
Cops who aren’t buddies.

Adding a balance to this equilibrium is Ario Bayu’s Hashim. Previously, Ario portrayed the father of the nation Soekarno; here, he channeled his machismo in a fairly controlled performance, almost as if he had been downing Extra Josses and Kratingdaengs just before the camera rolled. He is menacing when he needed to be, and empathetic when the time calls for it. Hashim’s logic, competency and English (always a point to consider in such films) are strong enough to suggest someone not to be taken lightly. I feel that Ario Bayu is the one who carried this film the most. It is telling that his name is not that present on many of the film’s posters.

This is important, because the film does rely on formulaic identity formations. We see, for example, the white guy being treated as the White Guy. Hashim does his best, but the ineptitude of local forces in dealing with one person suggests that there is a strong reaffirmation of Orientalistic ideals. One very small but very important example was the usage of a tape recorder running as Jake was being interrogated.

Now, Jogjakarta is a very special city, one that holds its traditions and aspects of its history dearly to its heart. I highly doubt, though, that its police force would have failed to move forward into the present with more recent and updated equipment. I am no expert in such matters, truth be told, but the end result is that this and other similar examples ends up distorting the film’s time setting; the contemporary is subverted into the past, serving a distorted need that makes the locals seem weaker than necessary.

A shirtless scene was a prerequisite in his contract.
A shirtless scene was a prerequisite in his contract.

I think this film was made was to showcase Indonesia to the world. It works on a number of different levels. The technical quality of the film matches up to pretty much anything a lot of mainstream Hollywood movies can offer, with the cinematographer showcasing a cinematic Jogja I didn’t notice on my mini-honeymoon there. They even shot at iconic locations like Borobudur, one of the wonders of the world. I doubt the permission was easily obtained, yet here we are, seeing characters running up and down the stairs firing gunshots at each other. Of course, great care and levels of professionalism was obviously required, but I struggle to think of how we Malaysians would have allowed for something similar to take place. Lest we forget, Borobudur also carried great religious significance, so this, as far as I am concerned is a huge coup.

What is less of a coup, though, is the film itself. I thought the idea was pretty cool to begin with, but for me, this film becomes a text that faces off its caricatures against one another. Deeper geonational readings can and probably should be made under the right circumstances, but then again, I don’t suppose this to be an art flick looking to change society. Rather, it reflects and reinforces certain ideals, and if that’s something you don’t mind all that much, I guess this could be the stock entertainment on that hot, hot, hot Sunday afternoon for you.

Jogja can indeed be very hot for Fikri.

Featured image credit: Shed Expedition

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