"I take orders from the Octoboss."

The Big 4

THE BIG 4 is the new one from Indonesian writer-director Timo Tjahjanto, who gave us THE NIGHT COMES FOR US, easily one of the best action movies of recent years. He’s said that this one is a comedy he made when Netflix Indonesia asked for something more family friendly, so I thought I needed to keep my hopes in check. But a few minutes in it’s clear that some silly humor isn’t gonna get in the way of the gory headshots, stabbings, and bone-cracking martial arts duels you expect in a Tjahjanto joint. It’s an action comedy in the traditional sense of an actual action movie that also has some laughs, not in the sense of a comedy that half-assedly employs genre cliches as set up for riffing. The characters here happen to be goofballs, but that’s overshadowed by the legitimacy of the action the movie delivers.

The first Tjahjanto movie I saw was HEADSHOT (2016), where a group of orphans were trained from birth to fight and kill. Same thing here, except they become good guys, not evil bastards. They’re vigilantes who go after horrible people. But it’s a messed up thing to do, it’s a dark and dangerous world to live in, and there’s tragedy and emotion just like in the non-comedies. It’s just in a context where it leaves you smiling at the end. A wholesome smile, not an evil one.

In the opening, the legendary Big 4 pull some MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE shit to rescue kids from an orphanage that’s a front for selling children’s organs to the super rich. The goofiest part of the plan is that grown adult Pelor (Kristo Immanuel), the youngest and least trained of the team, has somehow managed to get in there undercover as one of the orphans. Second goofiest is that the client Mr. Bob’s old age makeup is so obvious I can’t imagine anyone being surprised when he pulls it off to reveal that he’s Topan (Abimana Aryasatya, who played Fatih in THE NIGHT COMES FOR US and the title role in the super hero movie GUNDALA). I have to admit I was a little disappointed they didn’t have him fight with the makeup on, kinda like when the uptight mayor starts dancing in Michael Jackson’s GHOSTS.

That’s okay – Topan shoots a guy through a window and fights four or five guys with nightsticks, and the nurse turns out to be Alpha (Lutesha, MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU TOO), who bangs people’s heads against walls and x-ray lightboards, pulls a bomb out of Pelor’s ass and blows up some guys. There’s an actually intense gun battle and a rocketing-oxygen-tank-POV shot and their sniper Jenggo (Arie Kriting, GHOST WRITER 1 and 2) interrupts his meditation to clear their exit path with his rifle Siska (whose name is painted lovingly on the stock, below a pair of feminine eyes, one winking).

Pelor was stripped down for surgery, so he’s now wrapped in a blanket, which he pathetically holds up as if to block the orphans’ view of their captors getting brick sized chunks blown off of their heads. Concerned about their trauma. Maybe that’s the family friendly part.

When their boss Petrus (Budi Ros) arrives in a van to pick them up there’s a four-way split-screen and a slow motion walk, and the title appears over them in big yellow letters with a bullet hole in the 4. So we know we’re off to a good start. The style alone welcomes us to the wild adventures of a ragtag band of badasses (plus Pelor).

Then their adventures are cancelled. Petrus announces the shocking news that he’s retiring to spend more time with his biological daughter Dina (Putri Marino), who is about to graduate from the police academy. She doesn’t know what he does and thinks he’s a deadbeat because he’s always showing up late if he’s around at all. And wouldn’t you fuckin know it, he doesn’t show up to her graduation because a mysterious person from his past comes to his place and murders him. Dina and Topan go to check on him at the same time, so Dina sees Topan standing over the body, thinks he’s the killer, nicks him with a bullet as he runs, and dedicates her life to tracking him down. So the Big 4 retire and leave town.

Three years later Dina’s an overachieving cop, still working her father’s murder case on the side, and her boss makes her take a vacation. She turns it into work by going to a villa she recognizes from an old photo of her dad – it’s where he raised the Big 4, so they’re all living their new lives nearby, with Topan running the inn. Soon Dina figures out who they are and struggles to come to terms with her father’s secret life and the fact that these trained (by him) killers loved him too.

They’ve all found other stuff to do. Jenggo is a guru, scamming tourists, talking about chakras, making strange teas. Pelor (who never learned to fight) is really proud to now own a gun (gold, like his grill, and his necklace, which holds a gold gun medallion). Alpha works as an off brand Little Mermaid singing at children’s parties, as well as arranging arms deals.

They’ll all fight and they’ll bond and they’ll clash with other equally colorful characters. Their nemesis Antonio Sandoval (Marthino Lio, VENGEANCE IS MINE, ALL OTHERS PAY CASH) is both a formidable opponent and a laughable one. He was trained by Petrus too, so he’s jealous of the Big 4’s relationship with him. He overcompensates by growing a twirly mustache, calling himself “The Scorpion of South East Asia” and “The Prince of 1,000 Knives,” and intimidating people with his salsa dancing. He’s a genuine threat who gets the upper hand repeatedly, so he manages to be scary, even if we laugh at him.

He has a bodyguard named Alo (Michelle Tahalea) who seems deadlier and colder than him. He calls her his secretary, and she looks it in her pantsuit, even while massacring gangsters with throwing knives and a commandeered machete. His other most dangerous lieutenant is Vinsen (Kho Michael, “Club Fighter,” THE RAID 2), who’s the twin brother of a different henchman who died earlier in the movie, and has entrance music that sounds like Indonesian M.O.P.

So there are plenty of worthy fighters for our heroes to have long showdowns with in the finale. Until then, Sandoval has a surplus of guys in kevlar and tactical gear like cops who chase the Big 4 in a convoy of black SUVs so that there are plenty of ringers for them to shoot, stab, kick and explode.

At one point Pelor gets abducted, and there’s a badass group shot of the Big 4 minus one plus Dina, walking together in slow motion as they embark on a rescue mission. It’s set up for a joke, because Topan trips in the middle of the shot and then has to compose himself to look cool again. But it doesn’t ruin it because the funk music keeps going, so it gets a laugh without invalidating my appreciation for the shot just being cool. Imagine the discipline! No record scratch!

The humor is broad and bawdy, sometimes gross. With Alpha’s encouragement, Jenggo’s relationship with Siska literalizes the fetishization of guns, so let’s just say he enjoys himself a little too much when he, uh, puts his finger in “her.” He talks about her like a soulmate he’s been reunited with, and Alo becomes his ultimate enemy by snapping Siska over her knee. But the ol’ girl is able to turn it into martyrdom when Jenggo jams her remains into Alo’s bazooka to cause one of the top 3 deaths in the movie, and it’s all worth it for Jenggo’s anguished cry of “Siska!” (Reminds me of David Koechner in KRAMPUS discovering his SUV has been smashed and yelling, “Lucinda!”)

There are also comic set pieces that could be in a Jackie Chan movie, like early on when Dina thinks Topan is the desk clerk so he answers her questions while hiding that he’s fighting two guys, or later when Jenggo puts the wrong thing in her tea and makes her super high. In the latter case I don’t think Jackie’s performance would be as funny as Marino’s, and the psychedelic effects (animated lizard tongue) wouldn’t be as good.

It reminds me a little of the Hong Kong classics that have those wild tonal shifts from brutal violence to the broadest of buffoonery, but here it never seems jarring to me, I think it’s a pretty natural fusion. The characters and the movie have the same personality. Silly on the surface, sincere on the inside, tough as nails, covered in blood.

Here are three screengrabs I selected to make sure you understand this still showcases the good, grueling martial arts shit:

There are more fights than jokes. Not just quick scraps, but the long, exhausting battles you can rarely get in western movies anymore, because they’re not allowed the time. Two bodies hammering away at each other, collapsing, getting back up, clawing and crawling toward finding that triple exclamation point of a finishing move that will finally end it. (Fight choreographer/stunt coordinator: Muhammad Irfan, HEADSHOT.) Featured weapons include a mop bucket, bows and arrows, blowdarts, a bazooka, a customized bazooka called a Sunburst, a rolled up coat, a flaregun, a chair, various guns and gun handles, throwing axes, a hand towel, an unflushed toilet, a toothbrush, and a bomb that Alpha invented and named “Lucifer’s Fart 3000.” Jenggo says “there’s nothing badass about farts,” but it leaves a bunch of people and vehicles in flames, and turns at least one guy into liquid.

Bullets pierce through walls and floors, battles travel up stairways and down hallways, structures have holes kicked and punched into them, there’s at least one dramatic-knee-slide-while-pulling-out-weapons, and a whole bunch of evasive somersaults. There’s a motorcycle vs. motorcycle taxi chase/shootout. An arrow accidentally knocks a knife off a wall and drops it into a guy’s head. Vinsen swings at Dina and misses, breaking a sink off the wall, so she picks up the sink and breaks it on his skull. A guy gets a hand grenade shoved into his mouth and then he’s drop kicked through a door, and when Alpha realizes his severed arm is holding onto her she calls him a drama queen.

It’s the kind of mayhem that fills my heart and reminds me of what action movies are supposed to be. These are fights that have rhythm and build, set up and payoff, twists and turns. They tell a story, take you on a journey, they’re full of gimmicks and ideas and those little grace notes in between blows, like bumping into a tree during a fight and a bunch of leaves fall down from above, or stumbling into a lamp and knocking it over, or a piece of a handrail gets knocked out by a dodged kick, later to be picked up and used as a bat. And it’s all perfectly in tune with the camera, which seems to be as much a part of the choreography as the fights are. It rotates around combatants without being disorienting, it follows a person over a ledge, or as they’re body slammed to the floor, or will do a quick spin as the POV of a thug shot over a rail, or rotate in sync with a person being flipped. Batara Goempar was second unit d.p. for THE NIGHT COMES FOR US and moved up to Tjahjanto’s cinematographer on MAY THE DEVIL TAKE YOU and PORTALS.

A few parts remind me of DESPERADO, which is always a positive.

There’s a notion I can’t entirely disagree with that movies these days are too long (“bloated,” they usually say) and that more of them should stick to 90 minutes. Some would even say it’s pretentious for a silly action movie to be much longer than that. I don’t think anybody reasonable would be a total zealot about that, they’d allow exceptions for movies that clearly earn a longer runtime. Still, I want to point out a pretty long action movie that some consider silly: FACE/OFF. It takes its time building to a powerful melodrama (with speedboat chase) and I guarantee you there were people at that studio who would’ve loved to cut 43 minutes off of its 133. Fortunately nobody listened to those bozos.

THE BIG 4 is tonally very different from FACE/OFF, and is even longer at 141 minutes. But rather than making me check my watch it reminds me of how great a thing that can be. I can’t really picture what the more economical and compact version would be like, but it probly wouldn’t leave me with as strong a connection to these characters, and definitely wouldn’t give me the same feeling of having gone through a whole long ordeal with them and seeing them make it through, just barely. In the final battle these new siblings are checking on and encouraging each other, and at the end they’re all limping off, as bloodied as John McClane has ever been, but they’re smiling and patting each other on the back, and it’s exhilarating.

Bring on THE BIG 5, please.

This entry was posted on Thursday, January 5th, 2023 at 11:40 am and is filed under Reviews, Action, Comedy/Laffs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

9 Responses to “The Big 4”

  1. I saw this last night, coincidentally. Really badass action. In my opinion the comedy was aggressively *un*funny and it was mostly something I had to sit through and endure to get to the action, but the action was awesome.

  2. Hopefully this will get a sequel. Netflix’s viewership numbers reveal it’s been doing very well.

  3. I tried this but like JTS, the “humor” grated on me — to such an extent that I wound up bailing right after the orphanage rescue/massacre, as the opening credits hit. I’ll consider giving it another shot, but it’s gonna have to sit in the queue for a while.

  4. What’s Hot: The action. While not up to the pulverizing brutality of those in HEADSHOT & THE NIGHT COMES FOR US, it’s still suitably violent, excellently choreographed and tightly edited.

    What’s Not: This is almost the same length as GLASS ONIONS and like that movie, has simply no business being this long! That entire scene where the cop is stoned plays like the editor stepped out to take a shit and then forgot to snip it out.

  5. I liked it a lot. The action was superb; my only problem with it was that while I liked all of the fights, I didn’t think any of them topped the first one.
    Agree with everyone above about the length and humor. I liked the tone the humor generated (I still can’t believe this is from Timo Tjahjanto), but the jokes were… they went from MCU-style deflating of a badass moment to your standard Chinese/Hong Kong way-too-broad humor. It made me laugh a couple of times, though, and I’ve definitely endured and still enjoyed worse.

  6. Also, the gunfight through the wall reminded me more of Hard Target. Rodriguez made his own shoot a bunch of bullets and hit nothing extravaganza a couple of years later. That being said – I think the fact that this is playing so well says a lot about comedy in general. There is no hard metric on it. People laugh when they laugh. Being from America, I fucking hope the rest of the world doesn’t judge our view of comedy off of The Hangover movies. I liked this movie a lot and look forward to seeing more action comedies from countries and cultures that are different from my own.

  7. The comedy (komedy?) bugged me too. I almost want to chalk it up to cultural differences, but maybe that’s not fair to Indonesia. Could be Timo Tjahjanto is their Michael Bay and they, too, want him to quit that shit with people getting high on pot brownies or screeching about being in a dangerous situation.

  8. This movie felt to me like it took the three really distinct types of movies Robert Rodriguez makes (Cool action, ultra gore splatfests and broad slapstick kids comedies) and combined them into a single movie.

    I thought it kinda ruled.

  9. Just finally got around to watching it. Enjoyed it a lot and mostly found the humour to be okay. I guess I’m used to it with Asian action movies having this broader stuff. I suspect they maybe make it so broad and slap sticky as a concession to trying to make it something a global audience can follow as opposed to something more culturally specific. The drug scene was a bit rough though, yeah.
    I also would have liked them to have gotten through the whole thing without any Topan/Dina romance stuff. Not just because in general, I think more movies could stand to not have that in there out of obligation, but more for the fact I just liked the vibe of the Big 4 having brought a new “sister” into the family, and that fucks it up a bit.

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