Before Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais exploded onto the global action film scene with The Raid and The Raid 2, they earned their stripes debuting in this hard-kicking flick, though comparatively it is softest in tone when compared to their subsequent films. There are two versions of this film available – the 135 minute Indonesian cut, and the 112 minute international cut released practically everywhere else. This review covers the latter, which is pretty darn good on its own merit.
Merantau, or Merantau Warrior in some countries, centers around Yuda (Uwais), a young, naive village lad who embarks on a traditional coming-of-age journey (the titular Merantau) away from his family and scenic home village to pursue his dream of teaching the pencak silat martial art to children. He sets foot in Jakarta, and is immediately greeted with the harshness of big city life – his apartment is non-existent, he gets mugged by a street urchin, and after saving a prostitute’s life, he ends up in the path of a furious criminal who specializes in the sex slave trade. So it goes.
One really doesn’t need to realize how familiar this plot is. If it worked for Tony Jaa’s vehicle Ong-Bak, it most certainly works here, perhaps even better seeing that Uwais is a genuinely better actor than Jaa. Evans and company have crafted a well-rounded, exciting and quite organic martial arts film: each kick, punch and elbow is choreographed in such a way that at times it seems almost too real. There’s little to no wire-work used in its action scenes and when they do come, they are used competently without overshadowing much of the slick silat choreography Uwais and Yayan Ruhian (Mad Dog from the first Raid) have come up with. Speaking of Ruhian, he shows up here as a friendly chap who gives Yuda big city advice, but reluctantly is forced to turn against him in an energetic fight sequence set entirely in a (slightly oversized) elevator.
As far as the violence goes, it is reasonably tamer in both tone and content when compared to the Raid films, but it is still most definitely not for the PG-13 crowd. Stabbings, shootings, bone-breakings are abundant here in glorious form as lovingly captured by Evans via competent editing and cinematography, especially in the film’s crowd-pleasing nighttime climax at the docks (always a favourite of mine). There are sequences, though, where melodrama brings the action to a standstill. Perhaps Evans intended for them to pay tribute to filmmakers such as John Woo, this being his action debut and all. They do not go down too well.
Again, the plot is nothing new to write home about, especially if you’ve seen Ong-Bak. The film starts out pretty slowly, almost draggy at times admittedly, but once shit hits the fan, it never relents. The sex slave subplot does deliver rare and genuinely emotional, if not a bit cheesy, moments involving the prostitute character, which makes Yuda/Uwais a better hero to root for once he starts taking down these scumbags one by one during the climactic dock sequence.
It’s not a perfect film as described above, but it is definitely enjoyable, and a must-own for Evans/Uwais fans. They may start off a little rough and naive, but boy, have the Raidmovies shown how far they’ve progressed.