Magnolia Pictures // 2009 // 112 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Paul Pritchard (Retired) // December 22nd, 2010
In a city of violence, one man will stand up and fight.
If you're a fan of martial arts, or action cinema in general, you owe it to yourself to check out Merantau, Indonesia's answer to Ong Bak. A Merentau is an Indonesian ritual, a sort of rite-of-passage, that in the film sees young Yuda (Iko Uwais) leave his village for the bustling streets of Jakarta, where he must learn to fend for himself, before returning home only when he has achieved his goal of setting up a successful school for teaching Silat -- a local form of martial arts.
Forced to sleep rough, and with limited funds, Yuda is quickly introduced to the harsh realities of big city life when a young boy, Adit (Yusuf Aulia), attempts to relieve him of his wallet. Following a frantic pursuit through winding alleyways, Yuda catches the would-be-mugger, but is quickly forced into action when he witnesses Adit's sister, Astri (Sisca Jessica), being assaulted by a local club owner, Johni (Alex Abbad). Yuda soon becomes Astri and Adit's guardian, as Johni, and his benefactor Ratger (Mads Koudal), pursue Astri in an attempt to use her as part of their European sex trafficking organization.
With it's tale of a simple villager forced to confront life in the big bad city, Merantau will draw inevitable comparisons to Ong Bak. And, assuming director Gareth Evans is a student of the genre, these comparisons would appear to be wholly invited. Many scenes follow a very similar structure to Ong Back, while lead actor Iko Uwais is reminiscent of Tony Jaa in terms of his physique, ability, and appearance. Who the better fighter is I can't say, but I'd pay good money to see the two settle the debate.
Writer/director Gareth Evans is himself an intriguing prospect; how a kid from Wales ended up directing an Indonesian martial arts film is a story in itself. But regardless of how he got there, Evans clearly has a good grasp of the genre, and though he brings little new to the table, certainly raises the bar in terms of ass-kicking.
For all its attempts at adding a little more emotion to the genre, Merantau could eschew all its schmaltzy dialogue and impoverished characters and still work simply on the merits of its jaw-dropping choreography. Though less brutal than Muay Thai, the martial art of Silat employed throughout Merantua is certainly just as entertaining and effective. Evans clearly had a mandate to make each fight more impressive than the last, and against all odds he manages to achieve this lofty goal. Though the first real showdown of note is a mere five on one encounter, it sets a standard that other films could only hope to match, let alone improve upon, and yet, time after time, Merantau ups the stakes considerably. Evans is not content to simply increase the number of badguys for each showdown -- though there are a number of scenes that play like a videogame with an endless supply of asses waiting to be kicked -- no, Evans introduces everything from weapons to a clever use of the environment to escalate the action. Two scenes stand out: the first, a rooftop pursuit, betters a similar scene in The Bourne Ultimatum, and features a stunt so breathtaking-involving a pole to the face-that it demands you rewind the film immediately for an action replay. The second scene of note sees Yuda face off against an equally efficient Silat fighter. Set inside the confined space of an elevator, the scene stands out thanks to its bone crunching action and dynamic camera work.
The film occasionally slips a little too far into melodrama, most likely in an attempt to give depth to its characters, but honestly, nobody watching Merantau is going to care one iota why Astri's parents left her and younger brother Adit to fend for themselves. It's odd, but the more fleshed out characters are, the least interesting in the film. Take the villain of the piece, Ratger, for example. Here we have a character whose motivations are hazy to say the least. But none of this matters; once Yuda cuts his face up -- thanks to a roundhouse to a beer bottle -- all we need to know about Ratger is that he's not the kind of guy who's going to take it lying down. Such is his determination that, come the final showdown, both Ratger and Yuda are fully aware that the only certainty is death for the loser -- something the audience is only too clued in on.
Despite it's rather lengthy running time -- at least for a film with such a flimsy plot -- Merantau moves along at a cracking pace. Though the opening 45 minutes occasionally get bogged down in needless scenes of extended dialogue and exposition, the film keeps the action flowing, with the latter hour of the film almost exclusively reserved for an endless barrage of violence. At the very least this is the equal of Ong Bak, and suggests Uwais could be the next big thing in action cinema.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is pretty solid. There's the occasional soft shot, and colors are a little muted, but overall is more than acceptable. There are two audio options, both presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. Obviously the original Indonesian track should be your first port of call, but if you're feeling lazy, or are illiterate, the English dub is acceptable. Both provide a nice balance, with each strike containing just the right amount of oomph.
A selection of extras are included on the disc. Though the deleted scenes and bloopers are fairly standard fare, the making of featurette and focus on the "Bamboo Pole Stunt," singled out earlier in the review, are far more entertaining.
Review content copyright © 2010 Paul Pritchard; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Magnolia Pictures
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Indonesian)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Deleted Scenes
* Gag Reel
* Official Site