AV Club: ‘Jagun Jagun’ raises the ceiling for Yoruba epic films

A storytelling improvement on the two previous films starring Femi Adebayo (and Odunlade Adekola).

‘Jagun Jagun’, the third Yoruba epic to involve Femi Adebayo and (to a far lesser extent) Odunlade Adekola within the last year-plus, is primarily hinged on spectacle. It’s an unsurprising approach, especially if you’ve seen last year’s Nigerian box office hit, ‘King of Thieves’—also streaming on Prime Video. Even beyond that ultra-popular, big budget example, you can glean the influence of the smaller scale films with premises untouched by modernity and set in rustic locations, the ones you can catch on African Magic Yoruba.


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In these films evoking is not enough, the goal is to subsume the viewer with more than enough signifiers of core culture so that the aesthetic is definitive. Adire, Aso Oke and other parochial types of attires are used, beads and other divination props are prominent, dialogues are laden with rumbling aphorisms, the houses are clay-made huts, and there’s a lot of arable, natural scape in those locations. For those with action sequences, the closest thing to a modern weapon is always the smokey, pre-colonial, gun.

In the television films without the privilege of deep budgets, these showy elements add to entertainment value, since they’ll have to heavily lean on actors carrying the weight of not just the story, but the film itself. There isn’t much to defer to if the acting performance isn’t selling a plot, or the story construction itself isn’t worthwhile. When there’s a bigger budget, the broader limit on how these props and set designs can be used in enhancing a film’s experience or mask its deficiencies. The small spectacle of those smaller efforts can be blown up into cinema-worthy films or, perhaps more fitting for the 2020s, on-demand streaming.

That’s the lineage ‘Jagun Jagun’, a Netflix Original, falls into. From the onset, you can tell the Femi Adebayo-produced film wasn’t made on a shoestring budget. In fact, the hue is so bright it immediately reminded me of Prime Video’s ‘The Rings of Power’, the blockbuster fantasy epic which leveraged the natural beauty of New Zealand and excellent use of CGI into creating a world with ethereal realms and sinister kingdoms. Set across multiple villages in close proximity, ‘Jagun Jagun’ has similar ambitions, although clearly on the same scale, and it’s executed across a two-plus hour run time that’s generally stimulating, if uneven.


In ‘Jagun Jagun’, Lateef Adedimeji plays Gbotija, a young warrior who has to lead the charge in ending the tyrannical Ogundiji, the egomaniacal warlord magnificently played by Femi Adebayo. It takes well over an hour into the film for this central conflict to get going, though. What we get in the first hour is the set-up of subplots that funnel into the main plot, as well as introduction to characters beyond Gbotija and Ogundiji, like the battle-tested Gbogunmi, Wehinwo, the young man sent to Ogundiji’s fighting academy by his entire village, and the love interest Iroyinogunkitan, who plays an important role in a semi-satisfying twist.

As the subplots and characters are unfurled, the dialogue comes out as one of the stars of the film. Proverbs are loaded into the writing—there are subtitles, even though they move quite quickly. The metaphors, diabolical quips and boastful quotes come at viewers thick and fast, and it’s a credit to Adebayo Tijani’s writing that it doesn’t all come as a barrage. It’s also due to the cast that very little feels forced or over-performed. (The closest we get to over-performing is the heavy-handed tirade Gbotija goes on just before the climatic fight scene.)

Going back to the budget, it’s definitely a boon to have a roster of all-star veterans making up the bulk of the support, and even fringe, roles. When Odunlade Adekola only stars in a single scene, with Bimbo Ademoye and Yinka Quadri both appearing for only about a third of a film, as well as Adebayo Salami and Dele Odule in essential cameo positions, you’ve definitely entered too big to fail territory in Yoruba Nollywood. All of the that star power and personnel is needed since the film sprawls a little longer than necessary, which means it’s up to the acting to ensure every scene is entertaining even when some aren’t essential.

In a scene that would be otherwise forgettable, the great Ayo Mogaji stars as the mother of Ajitoni, played by the ever-combustible Aishat Lawal, who resorts to loud insults to rebuff the marriage proposal of Agbeloba (Ayo Ajewole aka Woli Agba). That scene, which lasts about two to three minutes and serves as comic relief, could’ve been cut without altering the film, but it adds some information that works in service of the film. Ajitoni is devoted to Wehinwo, who’s cruelly killed by Ogundiji, which leads to a search for revenge that effects heroism and a thirst for vengeance. ‘Jagun Jagun’ is winding but it can’t be accused of not being well-thread.


It’s similar to ‘Anikulapo’ in that sense, Kunle Afolayan’s Yoruba epic from last year that saw its titular character descend into wanton greed after acquiring an otherworldly power. In that film too, it takes a while for things to really start going, giving viewers an elongated backstory that could easily have been condensed. What worked for that film, ultimately, were its story and acting performances that did some good to even the parts that could’ve been left on the cutting floor. In a way, you could read the sprawl of the film as a form of over-explaining, where the filmmakers wants to show as much as possible rather than simply trust the audience to figure the rest out.

It’s the same trap ‘Jagun Jagun’ falls into, unnecessarily expanding on Ogundiji’s notoriety as a mercenary and dulling all the edges of Gbotija into the innocuous type of protagonist that’s easy to be indifferent about. Perhaps, it’s down to the idea that epics have to be grand in scope, but with a straightforward, good versus bad premise and sans extensive world-building, there isn’t that much to be absorbed by.

For what it’s worth, ‘Jagun Jagun’ is an improvement on the two other recent Yoruba epics in the Femi Adebayo filmography. Last year’s ‘King of Thieves’ and July’s ‘Orisa’ are bonafide cinema hits, the latter is still showing on the big screen and has grossed over 100 million naira despite opening on the same weekend as global box office smashes ‘Barbie’ and ‘Oppenheimer’. Both those films, though, are essentially the same: Odunlade Adekola and Adebayo are cast on opposite sides in the tussle for the control of a fictional kingdom.

The plot nuances are slightly different but the similarities are very striking, even to the point that criticisms can be applied both ways. Most obvious is the lack of depth between the four leading characters in the two films, which makes it difficult to fully understand their motivations and root for or against them. As Ageshinkole (‘King of Thieves’) and Komokomo (‘Orisa’) terrorises the villages, plundering the former through stealing and kidnapping in the latter, his ire feels aimless to even the viewers—who should at least be in on his reasons some ways into the film. Instead, both films are hinged on late revelations that don’t quite hit.

In ‘Jagun Jagun’, the story progression is clearly much better, and it’s evident that directors Adebayo Tijani and Tope Adebayo have a stronger control over the plot than they did on ‘King of Thieves’. (Odunlade Adekola directed ‘Orisa’.) There are still parts that need drastic improvement, especially the use of VFX and CGI, the former quite garish without always inducing a visceral judder and the latter is used to kitschy effect. At this point, though, it’s about growing forward, which is what ‘Jagun Jagun’ accomplishes, raising the ceiling for a film genre whose spectacle was once limited to a niche audience.