Jackie Chan was arguably the king of martial arts action movies in the 80’s up to the mid 90’s because of his commitment in using no stunt men and no wires in his films . It seems he had left quite big shoes to fill that Thai action star Tony Jaa had given it his shot in the late 2000’s. Now Indonesia seems to have taken a stake in filling his shoes in the person of Iko Iwais. “Merantau” is a film that displays the Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat (also known as “Silat Harimau”) to the big screen as “Ong-Bak” and “TomYum Goong” had displayed Muay Thai martial arts. “Marantau” is the first breakout film from director Gareth Evans that opened the way for him to create the more recent, bigger “The Raid Redemption”.
“Merantau” is a tradition when young men go forth to find their destiny and to pave their way in becoming a man. Yuda (Iko Iwais) is one such man who must travel from West Sumatra into Jakarta to know what it takes about becoming a man. However, things don’t go as planned, and he becomes homeless. Fate intervenes when Yuda encounters a young pickpocket named Adit (Yusuf Aulia) and his sister Astri (Sisea Jessica) who is being harassed by a punk called Johnny (Alex Abbad). Rescuing Astri may prove to be a mistake as Johnny works for a big time dealer in slavery named Ratger (Mads Koudal) and his associate Luc (Laurent Buson). Now, things go from bad to worst as Yuda must fight to survive…
The script written by Gareth Evans is pretty standard, but it is something that really isn’t that ambitious or intricate. The plot was a mere way to set up the fight sequences, but the themes of the film is a lot stronger than one may see at first look. Themes of destiny, of choices and how the hardest things to do are usually the right ones are rich around the film. Evans also makes some commentary on how hardship and poverty can drive the most morale people into doing things that they usually won’t do. I am not sure, but it seems like Asian movies are making a statement as to how the influences of the Western world have opened its doors to more illegal opportunity, but Evans does keep those things grounded and instead focuses the story on Yuda and Astri.
Keep in mind that “Merantau” is an action film and the weaknesses of its plot is intentional. This is a film that is driven by the action sequences, and many viewers may see the film as a mere stunt show. The action sequences are very cool to watch as Yuda mows down his opponents with one encounter after the other. The direction keeps the action from a distance, and spares no detail in the movements and the violence to drive excitement. The fights are well-choreographed and it was refreshing to see Iwais be on familiar ground around the group of stunt men working with him. As good as the fights were, the shots weren’t as free-flowing as most of the ones I’ve seen in Hong Kong cinema. They were intense, but lacked a certain “X-factor” to generate full excitement. The shots were also a little on the darker side than I wished, but nonetheless, the fights were able to keep me engaged (one sequence in particular reminded me of “Tom Yum Goong“.
The characters in the film are pretty simple. Astri and Adit are your usual staples of a reason worth fighting for. Yuda appears somewhat similar to another played by Tony Jaa, but it was easy to root for his cause. The bad guys are despicable and I had no issues hating Johnny. Luc and Ratger are your baddies that take the spotlight in the final encounter. There are hinted at rape in the screenplay, but it avoids any graphic details. The cinematography was capable, however, it wasn’t as polished as it was limited by its budget. I do have to say that while the direction was solid in delivering the fight scenes, it needed a little more tips in smoothing out the transition between drama and action. There were times that the drama lingered in spots that killed the intensity of the fights, it came a little too close to becoming canned melodrama.
“Merantau” may not be as smooth or as intense as Evans’ next film, but it sure was a good dose in the display of “Silat”. The film is your standard action movie but it does find its heart. There is emotional content in the fights and sometimes that is all we need. “Merantau” is a successful martial arts film, and a good launch pad for the Gareth Evans-Iko Iwais-Yayan Ruhian collaboration.