One Two Jaga Review: The Malaysian Film We’ve Been Waiting For

Please, for the love of God, go and watch it!

This review contains light spoilers. Not enough to ruin your experience of the film (I don’t discuss the plot nor any of the surprises), but I do break down the characters in detail. 

My biggest issue with our Malaysian film industry has always been the lack of earnest stories being told about our country and the people in it. Sure, every now and then we might get a Jagat, but for every Jagat, there are a bajillion Jangan Pandang Belakangs and Alamak Toyols, movies that lack any form of craftsmanship and cater no one else but the lowest common denominator.

And if it isn’t crappy horror movies and even crappier horror parodies, we have crapshoots like Rise: Ini Kalilah a movie that completely bastardized and turned glossy our 14th General Elections, taking what had been an ongoing (but not always explicit) battle for perhaps 30 odd years against the now former government and turned it into an emotionally and intellectually void farce — whose bright idea was it to make a movie about middle-class Malaysia jacking themselves off for two hours? And that about sums up our industry, doesn’t it?

But sometimes it’s difficult to blame the filmmakers (though, Rise: Ini Kalilah is not one of those times). After all, we live in a country where filmmakers are forced into a tiny box that disallows films to show Malaysia in a bad light, regardless if it’s the raw truth.

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Which is why a film like One Two Jaga (or Crossroads: One Two Jaga), despite its lame ending (which I will get to later) is such a refreshing experience, one that makes you ponder upon the future of our film industry as much as you mull over the events of the film itself. Here’s a film, helmed by Namron and produced by Bront Palarae, that clearly doesn’t give a tiny rat’s ass about the pretentious image our country desperately tries to maintain — our armed forces are so pure and so masterful at their work, they’ll make Captain America look like a corrupt, morally ambiguous little shit. Instead, it shows us the ugly side of Malaysia — the side that can birth limitless interesting stories to be made into feature films. It is also very, very realistic.

One Two Jaga is a tale of two police officers — one’s a slightly aged man donning a thick moustache and a tired look that suggests he’s seen it all, the other at the start of his career, eager to put some bad guys behind bars — as they manoeuvre through a corrupt system, in which they’re nothing more than a cog in a wheel that just keeps on spinning.

I get the feeling that Namron and his team of excellent writers (Ayam Fared, Pitt Hanif, Amri Rohayat and Muhammad Syafiq) drew inspiration from David Fincher’s Seven, at least when it comes to the film’s aesthetic and its two leads. But unlike Fincher’s all-time classic, this isn’t a procedural. There are no clues to be solved and serial killers to be caught here. Instead, think of this as ‘a few days in a life of a cop.’ 

I’ve not seen a single Namrom film prior to this, but from One Two Jaga, I can tell that he’s a filmmaker who exudes confidence (or maybe he has finally become that filmmaker). He doesn’t rush through the movie to get to the more “exciting” bits in fear that he’ll bore his audience. A vast majority of the film is spent with our characters doing seemingly mundane things.

Early on in the film, the senior cop, Hassan (Rosdeen Suboh) has a chat with his young son’s school principal. She tells him that his son is to be suspended for getting into fights one too many times. We see him plead and try and explain himself before getting frustrated and walking out. You’d assume that that’s the end of it and that this scene was just included as a filler to show us that Hassan has a son. But Namron isn’t done.

We then see Hassan scolding and advising (more scolding than advising — we’re talking about Asians after all) his son in the car on the way home, while his new partner Hussein (Zahiril Adzim) just sits there with an uncomfortable and awkward look on his face — like he wishes he had a pair of earphones and an iPod with him. We then go to Hassan’s house where he brings his kid into the room and you hear (what I assume is) the sound of a father beating his son (but not in a brutal, abusive manner… by Asian standards).

One Two Jaga Hassan

We also have a scene where Hussein unintentionally overhears a conversation between Hassan and his wife, where they discuss the expenses of the family vacation they’re planning. The beauty of this Namron film is that every single scene, even the seemingly mundane ones, is absolutely gripping. With each passing sequence, the tension escalates. We don’t know what’s going to happen or if anything is going to happen at all, but it’s the kinda filmmaking that keeps you on your feet.

It’s also the kinda filmmaking (or scriptwriting) where characters take centre stage (played by actors who are on top of their game) and the why is just as important as the what. Hassan is unabashedly corrupt. There is no doubt about that. But is he a bad person? The simple answer is yes. The more complex answer is that he has a wife and kid to take care of. And while his police salary allows him to stay in a small flat and put food on the table for his family, it isn’t enough for him to take his wife and kids on vacation. A less competent writer would’ve written Hassan as an abusive man who takes bribes to buy Victoria Secret lingerie for his Filipino mistress. Those types of people do exist but don’t necessarily make interesting characters.

Hassan is complex and alluring because he beats his kid not out of hatred but out of love — in another scene, we see him combing his son’s hair in a loving manner. The bribes that he takes don’t fund an expensive watch collection or sexcapades, rather it’s so that he can give his family the life that he thinks they deserve. He also gives you the impression that he probably started off as a wide-eyed, innocent boy-scout as well (another brilliant aspect of the screenplay: the characters feel like they’ve got a past that extends beyond the first frame of this film).

In the case of the new recruit, Hussein, he gets sucked into a world he doesn’t want to be a part of. He’s the kind of guy that became a cop because he watched Die Hard way too many times (or maybe Gerak Khas). He believes he can clean up the system and change the world and there’s nothing wrong with that. We need cops like him. He’s brave and dives headfirst into a dangerous situation.

When he sees a bunch of illegal foreign workers, he wants to lock them all up, including their employers. But this isn’t a summer movie, nor is it a Tamil mass-masala flick starring Vijay. And so nobody is on his side and the system keeps smacking him over the head with a baseball batHe tries to do something good, he’s told to shut up, sometimes by his superiors, sometimes by gangsters who threaten him by spewing metaphors while indulging in chilli crabs (in one of the film’s more brilliant scenes). Hassan genuinely cares for his young compatriot and so tells him to always turn a blind eye. Hussein is egoistic and trigger-happy. He can’t stand it when the bad guys mock him or laugh at him — he needs to show them that he’s a MAN. Hassan is used to it. He knows that it’s just that much easier to take the money, keep quiet and go about your merry way.

One Two Jaga supporting character

Just like Hussein and Hassan (I wonder if their names are purposely similar as sorta a yin and yang, but I think I may be giving the writers a little too much credit here), there are many other fleshed out and intriguing characters. There’s a young Indonesian boy, no more than 13 years old, who’s born into this poverty-stricken, corrupt, dirty world. I’m reminded of the little kid in Gone Baby Gone. Whenever he popped up on screen, I felt my stomach sink to my ankles. I know that he will grow up to be sweepings of the gutter (a gangster? A drug addict, perhaps?). If death doesn’t take him away first.

There’s also the boy’s father, Sugiman (Ario Bayu) who wonders why his son is slowly but surely losing his way, not realising that he’s contributing to the problem. And there’s Sugiman’s sister, the Indonesian maid who’s tired of everything and just wants to go home. All these characters intertwine wonderfully (it feels odd to use the word ‘wonderful’ to describe One Two Jaga given its bleak storyline) in a stylistic and gut-wrenching action-packed climax.

Why then did Namron and his writers feel the need to include the two Filipino characters and the Indian Dato’? There is an interesting story to be told with these characters, but it’s not one that seamlessly fits into this narrative. This particular arc felt like a jarring pothole of a Malaysian road in an otherwise smooth race track. At times, I was very nearly bored. I say ‘very nearly’ because Namron is a talented helmer and he’s able to take a subplot with boring characters and make it semi-entertaining (one of the most brutal scenes in the movie involves these characters and a bathroom door).

A film is more than a rock-solid screenplay. What separates a good film from a great one, is the director’s ability to take the screenplay and breathe life into it — to make it cinematic. And One Two Jaga is exactly that. The film looks murky and dirty but it’s more than just an aesthetic. It’s mood and ambience. One that seeps out of the screen and engulfs the cinema hall. Brilliant stuff.

But One Two Jaga isn’t great. It’s just almost great. And this has everything to do with the film’s ridiculous, facepalm-inducing ending — it will leave you with blue balls for days. I don’t blame Namron. The ending is clearly a byproduct of a note (I’m guessing) sent to Namron by our legendary censorship board: “You either change the ending to make the Malaysian law enforcement look good or we’ll ban the film.” As a result, we get title cards (similar to the Malaysian cut of Kabali, starring Superstar Rajinikanth) that tells us that every single one of these corrupt characters is sentenced to jail. The Malaysian law prevails!

That said, this is the version that’s out in cinemas and this is the version that I saw — I can only judge a film based on what is, not what could’ve been. And the ending I saw is such a buzzkill, it very nearly ruined everything that came before it.  Still, this is a movie that everybody (maybe not kids) should catch. If you’re one to always complain that the Malaysian film industry only regurgitates crap, then I urge you to please give One Two Jaga a shot. It’s a tragedy — a f*cking tragedy, I tell ya — that this movie has only grossed over RM 200k. One Two Jaga isn’t just a good Malaysian film, it’s a good film, period.

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