Review: Wira (2019)

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Not available in Australia on DVD (to our knowledge)

If I had to choose one word to describe Wira, it would be endearing. That may seem strange, given how the movie begins — a hard-hitting bout between two women in a ring. However, after this excellent screen fight and a blockbuster-style opening credits sequence, the screen fades in to a slow-paced village location and an interior monologue about returning home and the importance of family. There’s an earnestness to the film that gives it emotional clarity. It’s not subtle, but nor is it sappy. Wira is a heart-on-sleeve story and all the more enjoyable for it.

Knowing zilch about this film before watching made it’s quality a very pleasant surprise. I initially though this was an Indonesian flick, because the only actor familiar to me — and likely most of the global audience — from the poster art was Yayan Ruhian. However, Wira is a Malaysian picture and it is a continued pleasure to see other countries around Asia fill the void left by Hong Kong’s reduced output of decent action films. Having enjoyed the first viewing so much, I called up a Malaysian mate of mine to come over and check it out. Being much more experienced with the country’s entertainment he had low expectations, but was likewise very impressed with the outcome. Production standard is high across the whole film, with only a couple of the effects shots feeling cheap. Director Adrian Teh’s previous effort with the patriotic military flick Paskal was a big success locally, so Wira probably reaped some budgetary benefits. It was also great to have an ex-pat fill in a lot of cultural background, which added to the sense that Wira is both a thoroughly Malaysian product and a solidly made and entertaining film that works regardless of one’s knowledge of the culture. For instance, red paint splashed on the door of a flat clearly means the occupants have a mark against them, but my mate tells me this specifically means they are in debt.

Despite having a simple story, not everything is explained up front, so the plot and character motivations unfold fairly naturally. Hassan (Hairul Azreen) has returned to his hometown to help his family out of a jam. His younger sister Zain (Fify Azmi), and father Munas (Dato Hilal Azman) match him in resolve, although they disagree with his solution. The antagonists don’t get as much development, but are at least charismatic in their villainy. Factory boss Raja (Dain Said) is vain and manipulative, while his daughter Vee (Ismi Melinda) makes a ferocious foil, particularly for Zain. Raja’s son Rayyan (Josiah Hogan) is there as well, but overshadowed by head of security Ifrit (Yayan Ruhian, nailing some first class lurking.) Some supporting characters even get chances to stand out, such as Hassan’s friend and now local police officer Boon (Henley Hii).

Hassan (Hairul Azreen, left) listens to Raja (Dain Said, right) while Ifrit (Yayah Ruhian) lurks in the background.

When it’s time to swing into action, everyone is hitting their marks hard. The fight work here is extremely strong, starting with the builds before each battle. Whether through dialogue, music or camera overview of the location and participants, all have that pause moment at the top of the rollercoaster before taking the plunge. It’s also notable how plentiful the fights are, without feeling like they just happen because it’s been the right amount of time since the last one. They are dramatically justified, chiefly because the character motivations are so clear. Best of all, given the sibling relationship between Hassan and Zain is so well played, it’s extremely fitting to see them kicking butts in concert.

Zain and Hassan. You definitely want these two in your corner.

Blow by blow it’s also well executed, with complementary choreography and camerawork. This is so key, as it makes the scenes easy to follow, even when the editing is a touch jumpy for my liking. The production team also pull out a bunch of tricks from the film fighting manual. A lot of the action looks like it may be sped up a bit, or cutting frames for impact and there’s sparing use of slow motion for extra wallop. Using these kinds of techniques to maximise the effect of already dazzling choreography was de rigueur in 80s Hong Kong action films and seeing them used judiciously with a modern spin is another way films like Wira are picking up the slack. The combat itself is largely hand to hand or using small weapons like knives and iron bars, with a couple of signature pieces like a machete and a scavenged fire panel hammer being carried through a large portion of the later fights. When a gun is finally fired on screen it’s a shattering moment.

Zain and Hassan again. Cornered. Or maybe not.

For all the flailing and yelling, the violence is not overly gratuitous, with a few climactic exceptions. Hassan’s first fracas gets a light hearted intro as he teases his assailants about when they will finally jump him. When the fight kicks off we see how in control he is as the camera follows him through a smooth single take where he mainly dodges and shoves his attackers out of the way. Humour spread throughout the film also keeps the drama from becoming too heavy and is in keeping with the family and communal theme.

This would make for a great final shot.

What does break the tone with an uppercut as devastating as those in the fights is the last scene. An unnecessary coda arriving after the film has faded to black, it’s essentially a military recruitment ad. While not completely out of nowhere given the film’s backstory, it’s still very out of place. The scene also heavily references Paskal in a bunch of ways that mean nothing to the story that’s just concluded. Two sharp looking military men not seen until now get the actual final shot! It’s tacked on and tacky. Luckily, it’s so out of place it’s easy enough to set aside from the excellent film that came before it.

Since the title means hero, Wira is a neat fit for this website’s name and remit. Films so named have a good track record and it’s gratifying to be able to rate this new one so highly.

8.5 phone calls at a pivotal moment out of 10.
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