Yuda (Iko Uwais) leaves his home in West Sumatra to undertake Merantau. A tradition in which a young person must gain life experience and success in order to become a contributing member of society. He arrives in Jakarta to find the place in which he is meant to stay has been torn down. Left homeless he apprehends a child, Adit, who attempts to steal his wallet. Inadvertently he witnesses the boy's sister Astri being abused by her boss Johni and intervenes, setting off a chain of events in which Yuda must fight for his life while protecting Astri and Adit.
Ever since Ong Bak was released to worldwide acclaim and gave the Thai film industry a serious boost, other countries have decided to try their hand at making their own martial arts films. All the way from Indonesia we have been given Merantau which features the fighting style Silat. A style which uses close strikes, joint manipulation, throws and bladed weaponry. Fans looking for something in the vein of films like Ong Bak will be more then satisfied with what Merantau has to offer.
First thing's first. The acting. Now while Tony Jaa has been praised for his talents as a screen fighter, he hasn't fared too well when it has come to acting. Luckily lead actor Iko Uwais is a much better actor then Jaa, he's not perfect but he at least looks like he's making a big effort in the numerous dialogue scenes he has. His personality is very much the righteous hero and he has decent chemistry with his co-stars who are all good if ultimately forgettable, for the most part.
Usually in Asian films whenever there's a child actor they tend to be incredibly annoying however this film made the right decision when casting Yusuf Aulia as Adit. He doesn't go over the top with his delivery, he doesn't bounce around in that annoying way child actors do in these movies and puts in what is probably the best performance in the film. Which was incredibly refreshing since I would always find myself reaching for the mute button whenever a bad child actor would appear on screen in other movies.
However I think we should move onto the real meat of the film. The action. As mentioned before Silat is the primary style presented here. In particular a variant called Silat Harimau (Tiger Silat). Believed to be one of the oldest forms of Silat in existence, it is unique compared to other forms as the practitioners fight while crouching down. The reason for this, according to historians, was to avoid stumbling down when fighting in West Sumatra's wet paddy fields.
Director Gareth Evans puts the style to good use in the many fight scenes through out. There's an excellent confrontation on a bridge which sees Yuda use metal bars. Each hit looks incredibly painful and is a testament to both star Uwais and his fellow stuntmen.
One of the most admirable traits of Merantau is how each fight feels different. I absolutely love it when a fight film makes an effort like this. I find when films use the same type of fight throughout it can get incredibly boring but thankfully boring is not a word I would use to describe the action here. Another brilliant scene sees Yuda fight an advisary in an elevator and you can tell the director wanted to convey the feeling of being in a confined space which sees both actors using close-quarter techniques that really build the tension into a very bloody climax.
However, that's just the icing on the cake as the finale takes place in generic action setting #5: a shipping container yard. The one thing I liked most about the film was how each fight builds and builds and builds. As we go through the film we see Yuda becoming more aggressive in his fighting style and by the time we reach this point in the film Yuda is one bloke you would not want to piss off.
Here we see him take on the film's primary villains played by Mads Koudal and Laurent Buson. Both actors have extensive experience in the film industry and have made a number of films both short and feature length. As you may expect this is where the film really lets loose with the choreography and after watching it has quickly shot up on my list of top finale fight scenes ever. I would love to delve more into it but I don't wish to spoil anything.
These days it's getting harder and harder to find new ways to show martial arts fighting on screen. Fortunately Indonesia have made a good move by letting this film be sold worldwide and letting everyone interested get a look at one of the more obscure fighting styles in the martial arts world. I really can not recommend this enough as anyone who has enjoyed the work of Tony Jaa or Hong Kong movies of the 80's will not want to be left out on this one.