Writer: Gareth Evans (as G.H Evans)
Cast: Iko Uwais, Sisca Jessica, Alex Abbad, Mads Koudal, Yusuf Aulia, Yayan Ruhian, Laurent Buson, Donny Alamsyah, Christine Hakim
Running time: 107mins (International version)
The lowdown: The breakthrough film for Raid director Gareth Evans, Merantau is a martial arts gem. A showcase for telecom-company-dispatch-driver-turned-action-superstar Iko Uwais and the Pencak Silat fighting style, this riotous adrenalin rush pays affection tribute to old school kung fu cinema. Uwais is perfect as the country boy pitted against gangsters and slave traders, while Evans directs like he’s got the hottest superhero property on the planet. Glorious fun.
The full verdict: Gareth Evans’ low budget debut Footsteps had a handful of action sequences that hinted at what the Welsh director could do with a professional budget.
After relocating to Indonesia and shooting a documentary on Pencak Silat, Evans grabbed that budget and delivered on his original promise. And while Footsteps told its tale almost impressionistically, Evans uses his (largely) professional cast and crew for a traditional tale in the style of The Big Boss.
Yuda (Uwais) leaves his Sumatran village heading to big city Jakarta for Merantau, a walkabout style rite-of-passage in which he’ll spread the discipline of Pencak Silat.
Immediately homeless upon arrival, Yuda soon finds himself unwitting protector of exotic dancer Astri (Jessica) and her brother Adit (Aulia) after Astri is targeted by gangsters Johni (Abbad) and Ratger (Koudal) for a prostitution ring.
Comparisons with Ong Bak are inevitable. Both movies made stars of their leads (let’s hope rumours of Tony Jaa appearing in The Raid 3 are true), both follow a young man forced to leave his peaceful home for a wretched hive of scum and villainy, both showcase a lesser known fighting style (Muay Thai in Ong-Bak) and both tease their stars’ ability before letting feet and fists fly.
Evans and regular DoP Matt Flannery even shoot the different locales in a similar way: Yuda’s village is all warm, natural hues while Jakarta is a neon-drenched inferno of garishly saturated colour.
But, like Ong-Bak, the genius is in the telling. Evans imbues heart and genuine character into his script so something is actually at stake in the numerous set-pieces.
Employing a Kubrickian attention to detail, the director’s MO is clearly delivering an action film for those already familiar with Jackie Chan and Jet Li’s back catalogue.
A one-minute one-take steadicam nightclub fight sequence required almost 60 takes to achieve and this attention to choreography and directing pulses throughout. In true Jackie Chan style Evans incorporates a money box, a sofa and even Aulia into his fight scenes, and ensures locations are as interesting as the fisticuffs, including a freeway bridge, a dockyard with hellish red cargo crates and a closed elevator.
This elevator face off boasts the debut scrap of Uwais and Yayan Ruhian- The Raid’s Mad Dog himself. A showcase for the elbow and knee-centric style of Silat, it’s a thrilling display of martial arts prowess akin to Sammo Hung’s The Prodigal Son and its Wing Chun exhibitions.
The golden age of Hong Kong action again resurfaces in the climactic seven-minute fight scene as Yuda battles Western villains Ratger and Luc (Buson), recalling Jet Li’s Once Upon A Time in China series.
Evans’ fans will have fun spotting actors from other movies. Mads Koudal is elevated from Footsteps’ psycho lackey to glass-in-face crime lord, while Alex Abbad would be similarly promoted in The Raid 2.
Donny Alamsyah would play Uwais’ brother again in the Raid movies and Uwais’ onscreen mother, Christine Hakim, gave Evans his start, producing his Silat documentary.
Enjoyable and accomplished, Merantau did not breakout the martial arts fan base to wider audiences. That required fusing Pencak Silat with Western guys-on-a-mission gunplay… and a flying fridge.