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. That would be an awful stereotype. 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-known 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 didn'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 you can expect to see 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-sh*t crazy monk stuff. Action cinema 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 of 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 villains. 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. 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, easy-on-the-eye, stripper called Astri (Sisca Jessica). Yuda intervenes when she gets herself into trouble and before you know it, we’re safe in the 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, for the first half hour at least.
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 as Yuda sets out to rescue the girl by taking down anybody 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 that is. Performances are solid for the most part, even if chief villain Ratger (Mads Koudal) dishes 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 imagery doesn't rely on words or overenthusiastic musical scores, but I'm sure he'll get the hang of it.
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. You might want to check out The Raid movies too, I hear they're pretty good...