1985 | Indonesia
AKA: Pembalasan Rambu
I owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the titular gentlemen of The Gentlemen’s Guide to Midnite Cinema. Without them, it’s entirely likely that I would have lived my life without any knowledge of Peter O’Brian. And while that life would have been passable, filled at is with adventure and films in which Bruce Lee look-alikes fight Popeye in Hell, it would not have been complete. Lying on my deathbed, the final breath escaping from my gnarled maw, I would suddenly become aware of an emptiness in my soul — an emptiness shaped like a muscular guy with a huge permed mullet. Luckily, that hole has been filled, and I can shuffle off this mortal coil more occupied with my previous deathbed plan — making sure my final words are “avenge me!” even if I die of natural causes.
Peter O’Brian is a New Zealand-born actor who made a name for himself working in Indonesia. As the story goes, he was in Jakarta, working as an English teacher, and was boarding a plane one day when a couple of producers approached him with an offer to do some movies. “I think they thought I might be Sylvester Stallone,” he said in a later interview. In the same interview, he says he thought the “producers” might be local con men looking for a mark to take out to some remote warehouse and rob. Those men, however, ended up being the mighty Punjabi brothers, and after proving to them he could handle the fights, O’Brian was making action films.
Brothers Dhamoo and Raam Punjabi, while not exactly single-handedly responsible for the birth of the Indonesian action film, certainly played important roles in fostering it. Think of them as Dino De Laurentiis, Golan and Globus, and Roger Corman all rolled up into one family. They began their producing careers with a mind-blowing milestone in the world of Indonesian cult cinema, 1979’s Special Silencers. It was basically a crucible for everything that was to come, serving as the debut film for Indonesia’s biggest cult star, Barry Prima, as well as being directed by the enigmatic Arizal, who would later direct Peter O’Brian in another eye-poppingly awesome action film: The Stablilzer.
There seems to be some confusion over whether Rambu: The Intruder came first or The Stabilizer. Since they all come from the same universe of unbridled insanity, I consider the debate to be more or less pointless. Rambu has the feel of being a debut film, but that means little in an industry where films made in the 1990s look like they were made in the early 1970s. Both films are linked in that they are both tremendous examples of when boundless enthusiasm comes up against the reality of budget and skill and results in absolute bliss. Given the way the industry works, it’s possible that both moves were made concurrently.
One thing Rambu, and just about all Indonesian action cinema, does is let you know immediately what kind of movie you are in for. If you don’t hoot with happiness over the first five minutes of the film, you’re probably not going to be down with the rest of it. In Rambu, we open on a careening muscle car tearing ass down a country road. It runs into an old woman crossing the street, and even though they must have hit her at like fifty miles per hour, all it does is knock the old woman over and spill her groceries. The driver and his gang of goons leap out of the car and immediately start berating the old woman, insisting that there’s no way they’re going to pay for the groceries she dropped when she was hit.
Their vicious taunting is interrupted when Rambu (Peter O’Brian) appears basically out of thin air (it’s what he does) and starts smashing their car up with a lead pipe, insisting that they make good on replacing those radishes or whatever it was she was carrying around. The crooks eventually relent and hand over a wad of cash to the old woman. However, not ones to let bygones be bygones, they then descend upon Rambu, who graciously throws them his pipe and opts instead to kick their asses with kungfu and…well…like a boomerang billiard ball or something.
The might of his deadly sphere sends the thugs scurrying off into the brush, vowing that Rambu hasn’t seen the last of them. Rambu reacts to their threats by heading home to get an oily rubdown from his woman (Yenny Farida, Daredevil Commandos, The Stabilizer, Virgins from Hell) while complaining about how all he does in life is get erotic massages from a pretty woman while not having to maintain any sort of employment. Bored by this aimless, sexy existence, Rambu can’t prevent himself from showing up in random locations where gangsters are pushing people around. This includes showing up at a strip club to foil a kidnapping attempt orchestrated by one gangster against another gangster.
His kungfu-powered do-gooder ways finally get him noticed by the exotically named crime kingpin John Smith, who is also sometimes called Mr. White (Craig Gavin, also in The Stabilizer). For some reason, Smith keeps referring to Rambu as “the intruder.” O’Brian’s characters are generally saddled with less than impressive nicknames like that. Rambu also gets noticed by mysterious businessman Steven (Harry Capri, Daredevil Commandos and, yes, The Stabilizer) who wants to hire Rambu—whose actual name is apparently Alex, though no one really likes to refer to him as anything but Rambu—to be part of his secret army of vigilantes who will do the things the police are unable or unwilling to do.
Rambu, proving he’s perhaps not the sharpest knife in the drawer, throws himself into this new role with gusto and a complete lack of background check on his well-connected new benefactor. Before too long, he’s landed himself square in the middle of a gang war, and obviously, the blood will flow. Rambu is a gold mine of low-budget action entertainment, and what it lacks in polish it certainly makes up for with enthusiasm. Indonesian trash cinema seems occupied first and foremost with giving audiences their money’s worth, and Rambu never once lets you down.
From the opening showdown to the frequent fights, then on to the scene where Rambu faces down a gang of thugs by whistling to summon an army of tuk-tuk driving bad-asses we had no idea existed at his disposal until that very minute (and who never appear again), Rambu‘s only concern is making sure there’s something entertaining on-screen. The action is awkward and poorly choreographed, but no one ever goes about it with anything but the utmost conviction. O’Brian himself did pretty much all his own stunts and fights despite not having experience beforehand, and he performs pretty well. Sure, it’s not up to the standards of what was happening in Hong Kong at the time, but nothing in the world was up to that standard.
The acting keeps pace with the action in that it’s not very good though everyone is giving it their all. O’Brian manages to walk that razor’s edge where glassy-eyed confusion meets inexplicable likability. Even though he’s wooden and looks dazed through most of the movie (except in those moments when he summons a truly mighty rage face), there’s something…I don’t know. “Charismatic” isn’t the right word, but it’s in that neighborhood. He’s bad, but you don’t mind that he’s bad, and eventually, you don’t even notice it. Anyway, his colorful array of shirts and amazing hair make up for any shortcomings in the acting department. He looks like a someone dipped Lou Reed in a vat of Sylvester Stallone, then decided to puff perm things up a bit.
And that’s not even getting to the scene where he reconciles himself with the death of his woman by stripping down to his micro-Speedos and going for a swim—and I call it a swim to be generous. It’s more like a frolic.
O’Brian’s stone-faced stoicism is matched on the opposite end by exotic villain John Smith. Craig Gavin throws himself into the role with relish, a grand performance that could have ranked among the great scenery-chewing villains if not for the somewhat lackadaisical dubbing that renders everyone substantially more listless than they appear to be (with the exception of Peter O’Brian). At times, though, the dubbing works to the film’s advantage, lending an utterly bizarre quality to the proceedings. In particular, I’m thinking of a scene where John Smith attempts to rape one of the many women swimming in Rambu’s wake. Although the woman reacts with appropriate disgust and opposition to Smith’s attack, Smith’s own dialogue seems to be taken from the “bored phone sex worker” manual, with lots of matter-of-fact “oh baby, you get me so hot” muttering instead of the usual, more abusive language one expects from such a scene. It somehow manages to make the scene even more uncomfortable and awkward than if they just went with the typical exploitation film slapping and yelling.
This cast forms a sort of Indonesian exploitation cabal, popping up again and again in one configuration or another, in many of the country’s best, or at least most entertaining (and isn’t that what’s important), trashy action films. O’Brian appeared in several more films of a similar quality to Rambu, including facing off against Cynthia Rothrock in Angel of Fury (aka Triple Cross). Kaharudin Syah, Harry Capri, and Yenny Farida all appear in Daredevil Commandos alongside Barry Prima. Most everyone here shows up again in The Stabilizer, and Dana Christina and Harry Capri also show up in Prima’s Revenge of the Ninja — not to be confused with Sho Kosugi’s Revenge of the Ninja. Anyway, the end result is that they form a nexus of familiar faces that let you pretend all these insane action movies are taking place in the same Indonesia, at the same time.
Plotwise, you’d assume from the title and Peter O’Brian’s tenuous similarity to Stallone (in sort of the same way that Bruce Le looks like Bruce Lee) that this is some sort of Rambo rip-off. And it’s true, in the end, Rambu goes shirtless in black pants and a red bandanna while screaming a lot and waving around a big-ass machine gun, but this paean to Rambo seems thrown in almost as an afterthought, like they just remembered on the last day of shooting that they called the main guy Rambu and so better throw in some scenes that hearkened back to Rambo.
Most of the film, though, plays out a lot more like an Indonesian version of the Italian poliziotteschi, Violent Rome, starring Maurizio Merli as a cop who leaves the force to join up with a shadowy band of vigilantes. I can’t testify as to the popularity of Italian cop films in Indonesia, but as those films themselves were inspired by the likes of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, it’s fair to say either way that Rambu owes as much to movies like Dirty Harry and Death Wish as it does to Rambo — maybe even more so.
Of course, once we get to the finale, Rambu is in all-out Rambo mode, ripping through endless thugs en route to bloody revenge. It’s exactly the finale you’d want from a film that has been, for its entire run time, giving its all in every way imaginable. Rambu: The Intruder is exactly the kind of movie it needs to be: energetic, sloppy, and packed with stunts and action. Like most Indonesian action films of the era, it comes across as the plucky little brother forever doing everything it can to impress its older sibling. It’s that rambunctious little dog that hops around that bigger, slower dog in the old Loony Toons cartoons, brimming with unbridled glee and hyperactivity. Peter O’Brian may not yet have the cult film cache of Barry Prima, whose exploits are more celebrated by the people who tend to celebrate such things, but once you get a taste of films like Rambu: The Intruder and The Stabilizer, there’s no turning back.