Do you enjoy cinematic ass-kickery? Do you like watching people perform athletic feats that you yourself could never do without ending up in traction? Do you not mind the feeling of cottonmouth that you get from having a constantly dropped jaw? If so, this review is for you!
Having recently seen, and loved, The Raid: Redemption, I knew that I needed another fix and couldn’t simply wait around for The Raid 2: Raid Harder. Luckily, the director and the star of The Raid (Gareth Huw Evans and Iko Uwais, respectively) had made a previous film together called Merantau and it was just what the doctor ordered (Note: if your doctor actually does prescribe Merantau for an ailment, he is both awesome and not a real doctor).
How can you not want to watch a movie where this is a thing that happens?
The story is simple: a naïve young man from a rural Southeast Asian village, who is also an expert practitioner of the local martial art, travels to the big, bad city with a noble goal and gets mixed up with a violent criminal element that will put him to the ultimate test.
If this sounds like Ong-Bak, the 2003 Thai film that made a breakout star of Tony Jaa, that’s because the basic premise is eerily similar (and if it doesn’t sound like Ong-Bak, that’s probably because you haven’t seen it, so you should…like NOW). However, where Ong-Bak mixed its ass-kicking with a generous sense of humor, this film is much darker, dealing with heavy themes like sex trafficking and abuse, and ends with a shockingly bloody and violent third act. But don’t let that dissuade you; although more serious-minded than Ong-Bak, Merantau still a butt-punting good time.
Pretty sure it says: “Take one Merantau and one Ong-Bak and call me in the morning”
To Iko Uwais, who plays Yuda. Like his character, he is an expert in the Indonesian martial art of Silat, and it’s absolutely breathtaking to see Silat in action on the screen. Yuda’s furious flurry of fists and feet are definitely the highlight of the film, but he is no slouch in the acting department either. In both this film and The Raid, Uwais nails that perfect mix of wide-eyed innocence and steely-eyed determination.
In fact, the first 30 minutes of this film are all about character development and letting Uwais act. We spend a lot of time in Yuda’s village, setting up his Merantau, which is a spiritual rite of passage into manhood. Without seeing where he came from, we wouldn’t really know the true impact of how far he goes in his quest to rescue Astri and her brother from the bad guys. Throughout the film, Uwais deftly conveys the physical and emotional toll his Merantau has taken on him. He makes us feel the weight of his shift from sweet innocent to violent savior in a way that is exciting and promising for a first-time actor. And then he kicks ass. Lots and lots of ass. All over the place. All over your face.
Silat combines strength, agility, focus and the power of FARTS
However, the film is not perfect by any means. There are plenty of scenes where asses are not being kicked, including the previously mentioned first 30 minutes. For someone who is salivating to dig right into the action, it may be disappointing to know that there is no appetizer, even if the entrée is so, so worth it. Also, the main villain comes off as cartoonishly over the top and I’m surprised there was any scenery left with all the chewing he was doing. And don’t even get me started on his odd, homoerotic relationship with his sidekick/brother/lover(?).
Can’t two psychotic men be friends without people thinking we’re gay?
Also, why do only two people in the entire movie have guns? It would have saved the bad guys a lot of time and shattered bones if they had firearms. But maybe they feel they don’t need guns since SOMEHOW ALL THE BAD GUYS KNOW SILAT. This also begs the question of why Yuda was going to Jakarta to teach Silat if everyone there already knows it. It’s like they teach it in elementary school.
Teacher, will the kicking of ass be on the test?
Despite the minor nitpicks above, this is a film that should be seen by all martial arts fans. It’s refreshing to see martial artists who are actually experts in the art, which you don’t often get in American martial arts films. Thankfully, the director also lets us see the action and doesn’t simply edit the shit out of it, quick cutting every millisecond so that you’re too disoriented to enjoy the action. There’s almost too many amazing fight sequences to count (the fight in the club, on the rooftops, on the elevator, in the club again, etc). At the very least, Merantau is a must-see for the scene where Uwais is the martial arts equivalent of The Who’s Keith Moon, only the drumsticks are lead pipes and the drums are human beings. If you liked The Raid, you’re gonna love Merantau.
Oh shit, here comes the drum solo…
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: whenever you involuntarily say “Holy shit!” or “Ouch!” because someone just had 28% of their body broken
Slowly Sip Your Beer: during periods where people are not getting punched
Down a Shot: whenever someone wields a lead pipe. There a lots of lead pipes.