In 1981, Indonesia’s leading film studio, Rapi Films, released a martial arts fantasy adventure film called Jaka Sembung (released internationally as The Warrior). Based on the comic book of the same name (by Djair), the film shot its star Barry Prima to the top of the Indonesian box office and spawned not just a further three official sequels but numerous rip-offs in which Prima reprises the character in every way except the name. The first three Jaka Sembung movies were exported all over the world as The Warrior, The Warrior & The Blind Swordsman and The Warrior & The Ninja and, over time, grew something of an international cult following among VHS collectors won over by their OTT violence and weird backyard-budget charm…
The character of Jaka Sembung himself is a patriotic hero, a 19th century Indonesian rebel defending the People from invading Dutch colonists. Often, in these stories, the Dutch will call in help from local black wizards and other fiendish characters because they can’t defeat Jaka by themselves, but it never works because he is pretty much the ultimate warrior. With his ability to emit smouldering stares directly into the eyes (if not the soul) of the camera, his real life Tae Kwon Do black belt and impressive physique, it’s easy to see how Barry Prima got the role and why he proved so popular.
The Warrior & The Ninja is generally thought to be the third in his series (information’s a bit scant though – some people say it’s the second) and begins where whatever the last one was ended, in that Jaka is boasting about having defeated an evil murderer (spoiler – this happens in all the Warrior films so it really could be either). All seems peaceful for about two seconds until the local volcano explodes (quite a charming special effect, with the ropey volcano model evoking teenage science fairs of yore) and Jaka’s people have to run for cover while their village falls to pieces. It gets worse, as the neighbouring village is ruled by a particularly unpleasant tyrant in league with the Dutch and – as if that wasn’t enough – the eruption has caused a fiendish warrior to emerge from within the bowels of the volcano. This guy (an unfortunate actor sprayed head-to-toe with presumably toxic metallic paint) was apparently imprisoned years ago inside the volcano by Jaka’s master and, over time, his body has turned to molten iron (!).
Needless to say, this lava lout teams up with the Dutch and it looks like Jaka might finally be outnumbered and outgunned. But wait! What’s that you say? Isn’t this a ninja blog? Why, yes, it is… so as luck would have it, there’s a deadly woman (Rita Zahara – whom veterans of Indonesian trash will recognise from Jungle Virgin Force and many more) running around in a ninja suit and calling herself The Black Squirrel! She is a Robin Hood style character, stealing from the Dutch and giving it to local villagers so, of course, Jaka teams up with her to take on the bad guys. Whether the Black Squirrel is actually a ninja or not is up for debate. She dresses like one, more or less, but is only ever referred to onscreen as a bandit and never does anything magical or stealthy. It’s really only in the English version of the title that they’ve used the word “Ninja” (presumably to cash in on the boom which, by the time this was exported in 1985, was peaking).
There are some cool ideas in The Warrior & The Ninja but, if I’m honest, as Jaka Sembung films go, it’s bizarrely subdued. A lot of it is even – dare I say? – boring. The plot’s predictable and the over-earnest dialogue quite exhausting. Although there’s a wide array of characters, their arcs are dull: all roads lead to a duff-up. It might have more emotional resonance if I were Indonesian and patriotic, perhaps, but, as it stands, I found myself slogging through all the scenes in between the action. Considering this one is directed by H. Tjut, the mysterious genius behind Mystics In Bali (an essential and eerie Indonesian black magic classic) and the nutzoid Lady Terminator, I was expecting a higher calibre of craziness (although anyone who’s sat through his bargain basement Nightmare On Elm Street/Poltergeist mash-up, Satan’s Bed, will know that Tjut’s name is not always a sign of a guaranteed win).
There are a few great moments – like Jaka’s final shattering blow to the molten warrior, or the scene in which the Black Squirrel rips a rival fighter’s face clean off her skull – but it’s nowhere near as gory or as OTT as the first two films (Blind Swordsman, in particular, is a splatterfest). You’ve got a Pit and the Pendulum device that never gets used to its full potential, a smattering of random cannibalism, a melting wizard, a scene where a couple of old dudes fly and quite a few extended martial arts sequences but none of it’s remarkable or unique. It’s hard to say this of Indonesian cinema, where the energy is usually all it has going for it, but this one feels a bit lazy. Like they knew it would be a hit whatever they did, so just didn’t put much effort in.
If you’re interested in exploring the genre of Indonesian fantasy/action, The Devil’s Sword and The Warrior & The Blind Swordsman are better start points. If you’re a ninjologist in search of foreign thrills, it’s probably worth skipping this altogether. There’s the base appeal of Rita Zahara leaping about in a pseudo-ninja suit ripping faces off, sure, but this isn’t enough to propel our kind through 95 minutes of this largely turgid period adventure yarn. Sorry, Jaka.