Have you heard the one about the Welsh director and the Indonesian martial arts movie? Welcome to Gareth Evans adrenaline-fuelled action picture Merantau. Not as it turns out, a remake of Allun Lam’s The Black Sheep Affair. Merantau refers to a centuries-old Sumatran custom, where young men leave their villages behind in order to prove themselves worthy of adulthood. You might recognise director Gareth Evans from a little seen action movie called The Raid. It didn't leave much of an impression, unless you count the kitchen fridge, and I'm pretty sure the sequel won't change the face of action cinema either...
Yuda (Iko Uwais) has travelled to the big city of Jakarta, but finds trouble when he helps a young stripper escape the clutches of a human trafficker. Fortunately, Yuda is highly skilled in the martial art of silat, so it's safe to expect plenty of high-kicking action before the night is over. There’s no point trying to avoid the subject, Merantau wants to be Indonesia’s Ong Bak so much, it hurts. Whether or not Gareth Evans achieves his goal is debatable, but make no mistake about it, Iko Uwais is Indonesia’s answer to Tony Jaa. Without the bat-shit crazy monk stuff. Martial arts movie fans have never had it so good.
Merantau tells the story of Yuda (Iko Uwais), a young Indonesian man who looks like he’s fallen fresh out the womb. He’s so darn polite, you couldn’t imagine him pulling the wings off a dragonfly, let alone beating down on a horde of angry martial arts enthusiasts. He sets off on his journey, hoping to prove himself by beating the odds and gaining valuable life points along the way. Yuda’s dream is to set up a school in the art of silat; it soon becomes apparent that the city of Jakarta has other ideas.
A young pickpocket called Adit fleeces Yuda, and fate lays a devilish hand by introducing him to Adit's sister, a reluctant - yet easy-on-the-eye - stripper named Astri (Sisca Jessica). Yuda intervenes when she gets herself into trouble and before you know it, we’re back in the loving arms of action city central. Uwais is a very capable young actor, and it’s a good job too, because the opening act bathes in (complex) human drama, with very little martial arts action to fall back on. It’s an understated performance, or at least it would be, were he not asked to cut loose on the awe-inspiring whoop-ass of the final act.
Silat Harimau master Edwel Datuk Rajo Gampo Alam (seen as Yuda's silat master in the movie) choreographs the moves, and he does a fabulous job of keeping it real. Like Ong Bak before it, you’ll find precious little use of wirework here. The numerous (and at times spectacular) stunts are performed with a blatant disregard for human safety, and that’s why we come to love them so. The last half hour drops any suggestion of plot and concentrates on the majesty of martial arts mayhem instead, as Yuda sets out to rescue the girl by taking down anyone that gets in his way.
Even though the plot is slight, Merantau offers up a welcome dose of character driven drama, up to a point. Performances are solid for the most part, even if chief villain Ratger (Mads Koudal) could be accused of dishing out more ham than a cut-price butcher. But hey, he’s evil, get with the program. Gareth Evans handles directorial duties well enough, getting his feet wet before the big swim of The Raid, even if his attempts at emotional depth are a little misplaced. The most striking images don't need words, or an over enthusiastic musical score for that matter. The only mementos you’ll take from Merantau are the recollections of stunning fight choreography, not forgetting the striking film debut from its rising star. I wonder if Iko Uwais has been in anything else recently?
Not quite the complete package, but come the final act, Merantau delivers on its promise of bone-crunching realism and action spectacle. Definitely worth a look. AW