Common catalysts of martial arts movies are dignity and debt. Either someone’s been insulted or someone’s getting sharked, and no matter which, the scales can only be rebalanced with a few well-placed beatings. Silat Warriors: Deed of Death—the directorial debut of cinematographer Areel Abu Bakar—is kicked off by the latter. True to its genre-defining premise, the Malay actioner doesn’t break much ground during its lackadaisical story of an in-over-his-head gambler attempting to make good, but Bakar shoots it with enough inconsistent, eclectic energy that it’s occasionally more watchable than its ideas deserve.
Mat Arip (Fad Anuar) loves gambling on everything cinematic nightlife has to offer: Namely, drag racing and bareknuckle fights. He’s also a hothead that backs up his bad decisions with a swift kick. When his debt mounts to the point that gangsters threaten his family—dad (Namron), sister (Feiyna Tajudin) and brother (Khoharullah Majid)—at their home, he continues relying on fate and fists while those he’s left in the lurch turn to faith. Islam and calm conversation contrast with Mat Arip’s sloppy antics, this oscillation underlining the film’s values of forgiveness and support. No matter how badly he falls for hustles or squanders his few wins, his family has his back.
From an opening scene where Tajudin shows off her chops (she’s the best fighter in the film and, as a bonus compared to runner-up Majid, she can also act) and the stunt team starts showing off the commitment they’ve got to offer, we’re waiting for Mat Arip’s family unit to more literally team up. While it takes two-thirds of the movie to get there, it eventually pays off. Until then, we’re getting by solely on the strength of Silat Warriors’ villain (Azlan Komeng, absolutely excellent as the loan shark’s confident and imposing collector) and the charm of its smaller-scale F&F saga of fixed races and brawls. When we finally get dueling, intercut fight scenes set at a fish market, river and on a bus, the plodding details that’ve led us there melt away. All we care about in the moment is watching a handful of bystanding kids run over to pummel a henchmen.
Even during the film’s tepid dramatic sections, there’re flashes of brilliance from the exasperated Tajudin and the endlessly patient Namron, though the rest of the cast is strictly overblown or stilted depending on whether they’re providing comic relief or serious backup to the martial arts core. It’s here, in the writing from rookie scripter Hafiz Derani and Bakar’s directing of actors, that Silat Warriors’ struggles overwhelm its slight visceral pleasures. There’s just never much driving the movie forward, even if the film has a kitchen-sink shooting style that lends its water-treading an endearing DIY feel.
Bakar’s alternatively stark and cluttered framing, alluring colors, and hiccupping choices of cuts and shot speed to highlight particularly juicy moments in the fight choreography all prove him a filmmaker with an eye for action…if not for particularly exciting or compelling interludes. The diversity of cameras used in action scenes at least keeps us paying attention; jumping between shots of different quality, speed, focal length and more depending on whether we’re looking at tire-level racing shots, dashboard cams, handheld fight close-ups or deliberately staged set-ups provides the film with a hectic dash of scrappy formal zing. That this is all in support of bloodless fights that’re more theatrical than grisly makes it feel all the more like a first-time filmmaker making an accessible action reel showing off the techniques he has under his black belt after a decade and change behind the camera.
Silat Warriors isn’t the movie to convert casual martial arts fans to investigating every promising indie release, but genre diehards might find a few sequences that inspire or impress as the movie throws everything it’s got at them. At the very least, it’ll put Bakar on their radar as someone with plenty of visual ideas and a willingness to experiment with style while providing meat-and-potatoes action. Bakar’s filmmaking strategy is like a desperate headbutt: Silat Warriors: Deed of Death might inflict plenty of damage on itself with its erratic style, but it can still draw blood in a pinch.
Director: Areel Abu Bakar
Writers: Areel Abu Bakar, Hafiz Derani
Stars: Namron, Khoharullah Majid, Feiyna Tajudin, Fad Anuar, Taiyuddin Bakar, Megat Shahrizal, Azlan Komeng
Release Date: July 6, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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