Jakarta authorities race to find explosives hidden across the city in this fast-paced ’24’-style thriller
Dir. Angga Dwimas Sasongko. Indonesia. 2023. 140mins
When a terrorist threat plunges Jakarta into panic, Indonesia’s Counterterrorism Bureau wastes no time trying to identify the cell responsible. But it is hindered by the technological sophistication of its adversaries – not to mention the likelihood that there is a mole in the ranks. Action thriller 13 Bombs may sound like it has much in common with real-time television phenomenon 24 but, while the restless camerawork and desaturated colour schemes immediately recall that production’s sleek aesthetic, Angga Dwimas Sasongko manages to flip the script in various ways.
A general adherence to a familiar template prevents ’13 Bombs’ from ever truly quickening the pulse
There is, for example, the notable lack of a local equivalent to 24’s unkillable alpha male protagonist Jack Bauer. The government agents here are mostly by-the-book types, with the heroes being youthful cryptocurrency exchange co-founders who find themselves embroiled in the plot. Beyond their programming expertise, both lack the necessary special set of skills to take on terrorists. Or as one puts it during a moment of duress: “We’re just two nerds building a start-up!”
Selected for the Limelight Programme at Rotterdam, 13 Bombs has the hallmarks of streaming product rather than festival fare. Still, its concentrated effort to address human complexities within a ticking-clock scenario should ensure further exposure at genre-focused events. The film opened in Indonesia on December 28, and could mine decent theatrical returns in South East Asia with its polished mix of tension and topicality (the plot loosely incorporates the biggest financial fraud in Indonesian history). Internationally, 13 Bombs may well end up on a streaming platform amid the very content that Sasongko and screenwriter M. Irfan Ramli are so keen to subvert.
The chaos commences when an armoured car is attacked by well-equipped militants. It is not a robbery – the cell leaves the money to be looted by hard-up bystanders – rather an attention-grabber, soon followed by a demand delivered by hacking directly into Indonesia’s Bureau of Counterterrorism. The group’s masked leader Arok (Rio Dewanto) states they have planted 13 bombs throughout Jakarta which will be detonated every eight hours unless 100 bitcoins are received.
For the transfer, Arok specifies the currency trading platform Indodax, which is run by entrepreneurs Oscar (Chicco Kurniawan) and William (Ardhito Pramono). Taken into custody, they profess to having no affiliation with the terrorists and agree to assist with the time-sensitive investigation. Upon realising that Indodax was chosen specifically and they are being framed, the tech-savvy pair are forced to flee from the authorities. Assisted by William’s cool-headed fiancée Agnes (Lutesha), they try to locate the cell independently to clear their names and prevent the loss of innocent lives.
In the opening stretch of13 Bombs, Sasongko efficiently establishes an atmosphere of fear and briskly sketches the professional dynamics of the counterterrorism unit under the stern command of bureau chief Damaskus (Rukman Rosadi). Although there are glimpses of the cell and its operation, identities and motivations are initially shrouded to put the audience on the side of the authorities.
Yet expert cross-cutting by editor Hendra Adhi Susanto soon splinters the fast-moving narrative to incorporate three distinct perspectives. If the extremes that Arok is willing to go to are never justified, his reasons for bringing Jakarta to a standstill make him a palpably human ‘villain’. Furthermore, certain members of his cell transcend one-dimensional henchmen status to become justifiably aggrieved individuals who are potentially sacrificing themselves to create a better future for their communities. The authorities, meanwhile, begin to look increasingly slavish to a system that oppresses an impoverished mass under the pretence of stability.
Literally caught in the middle is the likable duo of Oscar and William, who represent a generational impasse as tech-savvy graduates who are disillusioned with the system but want to change it from within by using commercial tools. Their mutual anxiety and outside-the-box thinking gives this strand a jittery energy which reaches a critical peak when the seemingly aligned pair find themselves at ideological loggerheads due to crucial differences in family backgrounds.
Although Sasongko forcefully questions the fundamental politics of a tried and tested genre, a general adherence to a familiar template and over-reliance on stock elements prevents 13 Bombs from ever truly quickening the pulse. There is a lot of furious typing as characters rattle off technical specifics, while the aforementioned mole in the bureau is perfectly guessable, and scenes of tactical engagement take place in the standard locations of office buildings and repurposed warehouses. The set pieces are thankfully light on shaky-cam and convey a sense of spatial geography, but are only perfunctorily staged. Amid the gunfire, a final-reel knife duel feels like an obligatory inclusion given Indonesian cinema’s current standing as the leading purveyor of grisly stabbing mayhem.
Despite the best efforts of cinematographer Arnand Pratikto to add depth and scale, the film has a small screen look that makes it play like a condensed limited series. That said, viewers who are almost as strapped for time as the film’s protagonists could handily break 13 Bombs into three ‘episodes’ for streaming consumption without losing any momentum or impact.
Production company: Visinema Pictures
International sales: WME Independent, firstname.lastname@example.org
Producer: Taufan Adryan
Screenplay: M. Irfan Ramli
Editing: Hendra Adhi Susanto
Cinematography: Arnand Pratikto
Music: Abel Huray
Main cast: Ardhito Pramono, Lutesha, Chicco Kurniawan, Putri Ayudya, Rio Dewanto, Ganindra Bimo, Niken Anjani, Rukman Rosadi