Joe Taslim is why 2011's The Raid: Redemption still kicks ass. Along with actor/choreographers Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhia, the three exhibited the brutal Indonesian martial art pencak silat to a global audience. Years after its release, The Raid is still ranked as one of the greatest action movies of the last decade.
"Before The Raid, no one really knew about silat," Taslim tells Inverse. "After The Raid, silat got popular. Everyone's intrigued, like, What's this new thing? I'm proud the movie introduced Indonesian martial arts to a global market. I'm proud and honored."
In 2021, pandemic pending, Taslim, 39, will again show off his skills in silat as the cool blue ninja Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat, the R-rated reboot of the popular video game franchise. Until then, Kombat fanatics can see Taslim as "Li Yong," a lieutenant of the deadly Long Zii gang, in Season 2 of Warrior on Cinemax (and soon, HBO Max).
Set in 1870s San Francisco, in the heat of the city's Tong Wars, Warrior follows kung fu master Ah Sahm (played by Andrew Koji) who searches for his sister Mai Ling (Dianne Doan) only to learn she's risen the ranks of the Long Zii. Taslim's Li Yong is her second-in-command and lover, as well as Ah Sahm's rival. The series is based on a concept imagined by Bruce Lee in 1971.
"Li Yong's world is small," Taslim says of his place in Warrior Season 2. "He's not involved with the [city's] politics or the Irish. It's him, the Long Zii, the Hop Wei, and his relationship with Mai Ling. Season 2 is more of that. You go deeper into his devotion to the Long Zii, and of course, it's not going to be smooth. You will see challenges."
But is Li Yong devoted to his gang, or to his lover? "If he has to choose between love and career, he chooses love," Taslim says. "He's a fighter who's blinded by love, in a good way."
After decades of kung fu flicks from Hong Kong and Japanese samurai epics, few moviegoers had seen silat when The Raid: Redemption hit. Formulated by native Indonesians to defend against Dutch colonizers, the Japanese in World War II, and their own civil wars, the martial art is distinct in its strikes, grappling, and small weaponry like sticks and curved knives.
"That's why The Raid got so much recognition," Taslim says. "Silat is fast, similar to Jeet Kune Do and Wing Chun, but it's like a dance. Silat has combinations that are perfect for action movies. It's visually elegant and deadly."
But Taslim, an Indonesian martial artist of many styles, had no problem adapting to the more strictly Chinese forms of his Chinese immigrant character. "I used to be a judo fighter, and when I was a kid I trained in Chinese wushu for two, three years," he says. "So to transform myself from the way I fight in my previous movies to this master of kung fu, I discussed a lot with the [Warrior] choreographer [Brett Chan] for sure."
While Bruce Lee would have played Ah Sahm if he starred in Warrior, Taslim and the producers agreed Li Yong would similarly adopt Bruce Lee's free-flowing fight philosophies.
"We agreed Li Young is a master of a lot of styles. He has his own way," Taslim says. "He's like Bruce Lee. He's like water, he's fluid. He sees his opponents and finds the best way to beat that style."
Taslim teases a big fight scene late in Season 2 that reveals this part of Li Yong. "There's a fight against an important character. He is watching and observing, like, I know the weakness."
Just like Li Yong, Taslim will use every tool in his arsenal as Sub-Zero in Mortal Kombat. Based on the genre-defining video games, the story revolves around an ancient tournament in which combatants from different dimensions fight for survival. Sub-Zero, along with Scorpion, are major fan favorites as deadly ninjas who possess opposing ice and fire powers.
Despite their popularity in the games, Sub-Zero and Scorpion were bit players in the original 1995 movie. Though Taslim is unable to reveal much about the new movie, he does confirm there will be more of an emphasis on the overall Mortal Kombat ensemble, Sub-Zero and Scorpion included.
“For fans who love Liu Kang, who love Scorpion, who love Sub-Zero, they're gonna get justice.”
"It's a really strong script," Taslim raves. "When you think about Mortal Kombat, you think it's just good guys fighting bad guys in a tournament. But this movie is more than that. More story. More layers. For fans who love Liu Kang, who love Scorpion, who love Sub-Zero, they're gonna get justice. For the fans, I have high hopes they would like it."
Like everyone who grew up in the '90s, Taslim has fond memories of the games. "I played Mortal Kombat on Sega," he remembers. "I was a kid in South Sumatra. Video games and Sega were a luxury. Not everyone can buy it. So I went to my friend's house, who was richer than me, and we'd play together. I remembered that if I didn't play Scorpion, I'd play Sub-Zero."
Years later, Taslim's agents told him he was cast in Mortal Kombat. His first response was an emphatic demand to know, "Which one?" When he learned he'd play Sub-Zero, there was one final test before he accepted the role.
"I said, 'Okay, let me call my son.'" At 10-years-old, Taslim's son is not allowed to play the violent Mortal Kombat, "but he knows the game. I asked [him], 'Which character you think fits me if I'm in the movie?' He looked at me and said, 'I think you should play Sub-Zero.' I was like, that's it. Done."
Warrior airs Fridays at 10 p.m. Eastern on Cinemax.