Java Heat is an action movie for serious action movie buffs. Neither outrageous nor self-conscious, it looks and moves like any number of good late-’80s/early-’90s action flicks. In lieu of smashed-in zooms and jittery handheld, director Conor Allyn opts for wide-angle lenses and Steadicam shots; the result is clear and concise. Unfortunately, Java Heat is also an action movie for people who don’t mind clichéd plotting, lame dialogue, and the low-wattage charisma of third-string Twilight heartthrob Kellan Lutz.
Lutz stars as an American who travels to Indonesia disguised (unconvincingly) as a grad student. After surviving a terrorist bombing, he comes to the attention of local straight-arrow cop Ario Bayu. Soon Java Heat settles into the familiar pattern of a mismatched-buddy action movie, with Lutz as the fish-out-of-water on a mission and Bayu as the all-knowing local. Together, they kick ass, recite factoids about Indonesia, and try to solve a non-engrossing mystery that involves Islamic radicals, Chinese triads, and a kidnapped princess.
Lurking in the shadows, sometimes literally, is Mickey Rourke, who plays a terrorist, a gangster, and a pedophile—the Triple Crown of villainy. Rourke mumbles and slurs his lines in a quasi-French accent that begs for subtitles. He wears granny sunglasses and poplin suits, and waxes poetically about the eroticism of bathing. His performance is bizarre, but also compulsively watchable in a late-period Marlon Brando sort of way.
Java Heat’s strongest selling point is its style. The references skew older; there’s a little John McTiernan and a bit of John Woo’s Hong Kong work. Allyn comes across as an action classicist in the vein of John Hyams or Isaac Florentine; his decision to shoot the film on 35mm in anamorphic widescreen—both of which are unusual for a lower-budgeted action movie—further contributes to the movie’s retro vibe. However, unlike Hyams and Florentine—or McTiernan and Woo before them—Allyn doesn’t have anything new to offer the genre; he’s capable but derivative. The pleasure of Java Heat is the pleasure of seeing things done the old-fashioned way. The movie’s best sequences—like the one in which Bayu single-handedly storms a terrorist compound while SWAT teams wait outside—stand out for their craftsmanship, not their originality.
It doesn’t help that the script, co-written by Allyn and his father, Rob (who, believe it or not, also co-wrote the memoirs of Mexican president Vicente Fox), feels like something Commando director Mark L. Lester would have rejected in 1989. A charismatic lead can make the most inane dialogue pop—a fact that’s doubly true when it comes to action movies—and Java Heat has one in Bayu. He lends his devoutly Muslim cop a credible intensity and decency, and manages to make lines like, “Allah give you two eyes and one mouth so that you might see twice as much as you speak” sound hard-boiled instead of corny. Unfortunately, the film also has Lutz. He’s a blandly handsome non-presence who mostly lets his abs do the acting; the filmmakers are more than happy to let him do it, going so far as to include a gratuitous workout scene.
Had Java Heat focused entirely on Bayu, it would’ve been a modest, entertaining action movie distinguished by Rourke’s eccentric supporting turn. However, because it banks so much on Lutz and on his chemistry with Bayu—that is, the chemistry between a guy who can’t really act and a guy who definitely can—it ends up being little more than a capably crafted misfire.