Although a film by a Welsh born director focusing on the Indonesian martial art of Silat may sound like a strange combination, Gareth Evan’s “Merantau Warrior” is a genuine sensation, and one which rivals, and even surpasses Tony Jaa’s “Ong Bak” series in terms of bone crunching thrills. The film also introduces the world to Iko Uwais, quite possibly another Asian action megastar in waiting, as he takes down villains using the titular technique, an amazing mixture of blows, joint wrenching throws, weapons and animal style strikes. Boasting some breathtaking fight choreography as well as cinematic craftsmanship, the film scores highly on a number of different levels, and is all the more impressive for not being a mere one trick kung fu pony. Genre fans can judge for themselves, as the film now arrives on region 2 DVD via E1 Entertainment, coming with a respectable collection of extras that includes behind the scenes and making of features, deleted scenes and the usual trailers and promos.
Iko Uwais stars as Yuda, a young farmer and Silat practitioner who leaves his village in Minangkabau, West Sumatera, and heads to Jakarta in order to undergo his ‘Merantau’, a rite of passage which will see him becoming a man by making his mark on the world. Unfortunately, he soon finds himself alone and homeless in the uncaring big city, until a young thief called Adit (Yusuf Aulia) steals his wallet. This leads him to an encounter with the boy’s older sister Astri (Sisca Jessica), who he saves from her unpleasant boss Johni (Alex Abed). Things take a turn for the worse when Johni’s employers, a pair of psychotic European human traffickers (Danish actor Mads Koudal, and the French Luc Buson, who also appeared in Jingle Ma’s Michelle Yeoh vehicle “Silver Hawk”) decide that they need Astri as part of their latest shipment of forced prostitutes. After the poor girl is kidnapped, Yuda steps up to take on hordes of evil henchmen in a bold rescue bid, including another Silat fighter who has gone to the bad.
Awesome action aside, what really gives “Merantau Warrior” a massive boost is that it is genuinely well made, edited and written, with Evans aiming for a gritty, though colourful look that ensures the film not only feels visceral, but believable. The film’s visuals are atmospheric and raw, managing to convey an authentic local look, as well as creating a suitably seedy underbelly for its grim human slavery theme. Certainly, the film doesn’t pull any punches, and is surprisingly dark in places, something which makes it story all the more gripping. Although perhaps a little overlong, it manages to hold the interest throughout, and though the characters are all pretty standard, they are engaging enough to keep the film moving outside of the fight scenes. By the standards of the genre, Evans allows the film to build relatively slowly towards some of its more explosive sequences, and this investment in character not only makes for more emotional impact, but a far more convincing journey to manhood plot arc. As an overall package, this arguably makes the film more entertaining than “Ong Bak” and many of its peers, which were frequently rather grating when people stopped hitting each other or jumping from heights. Helped by a cast who uniformly turn in solid, professional performances, Evans succeeds in finding the human story behind the violence.
Of course, the film will, and indeed should be judged on its action quotient and martial arts, and in this it similarly excels. Though the film does take a while to get to the fighting proper, once it does, the brawls come thick and fast, with the last forty five minutes or so being pretty much non-stop excitement. The action choreography is of a very high standard, making the very most of the various Silat techniques, with Iko Uwais proving himself to be an incredibly talented and acrobatic young man. Evans shows a creative eye, choosing some interesting locations for the set pieces, including roof tops, scaffolding, and even an elevator. It also helps that the film is exhilaratingly brutal, with some very tough scenes involving iron bars and broken bottles, and a commendable number of elbows and knees to the head. The stunt work is similarly superb, with some jaw dropping money shots that again more than give Tony Jaa a run for his money.
As a result, “Merantau Warrior” is easily one of the best and most adrenalin charged martial arts films of recent years, and a serious challenger for the “Ong Bak” crown. Impressing with its characters and direction as well as its action, it serves as a timely reminder that the genre is capable of far more than mere physical spectacle.
Gareth Evans (director) / Gareth Evans (screenplay)
CAST: Iko Uwais … Yuda
Sisca Jessica … Astri
Christine Hakim … Wulan
Mads Koudal … Ratger
Yusuf Aulia … Adit
Alex Abbad … Johni
Yayan Ruhian … Eric
Laurent Buson … Luc