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If you’ve paid attention to some of the buzz earlier this year, you’ve heard of a little sleeper hit out of Indonesia called The Raid: Redemption. Click below to read about the actor’s debut film, Merantau!

I cannot speak for all fans of martial arts films, but to me, the last decade or so has been rather lacking when it comes to quality martial arts action films. A lot of the legends in the industry that paved the way for this genre and made martial arts movies of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s are getting up there in years now. The famous trio of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao have gotten old and naturally cannot perform the outstanding choreography that they used to back in their prime. Jet Li is also getting up there in years, though he and Jackie Chan are still working as much as they can. And Donnie Yen, comparably the youngest of that era of martial arts stars is still kicking major ass, but the clock is also ticking on his stamina. The genre needs new blood, and with a slew of new releases from various different countries, the star of this movie could be one of those rising stars.

We’ve had sparks of greatness here and there in the past decade. Some of my favorite movies came out of the last decade, from 2007’s Invisible Target to Donnie Yen’s Ip Man movies. And, of course, one cannot speak of recent classics without mentioning Tony Jaa and his phenomenal debut in Ong Bak. He single-handedly brought Muay Thai and as well as Thai films to the attention of the international audience. His subsequent movies may have not fared well compared to his first, but he opened the door for many new actors from many different countries and backgrounds to try their hand at breaking through and showing the world what they are capable of. This is where Iko Uwais comes in with his debut film out of Indonesia called Merantau.

Merantau 1Uwais plays Yuda, a native from West Sumatra who goes on a traditional journey known as Merantau to gain knowledge and success. His plans are to teach silat, a martial arts style commonly used in Indonesia and surrounding regions, to kids in the city of Jakarta. But, when he arrives he finds that the place he was supposed to stay and teach at has been torn down and thus, he becomes homeless and has to sleep in a construction site.

The next day doesn’t prove to brighten his hope for things to start going well as it starts with his wallet getting stolen by a kid while he was eating at a food vendor. He chases the kid, who suddenly stops when he sees a girl being beaten by a guy. The dancer, Astri, works for Johni, the douchebag that is beating her, and he is not happy that she is skimping out on his money. The boy, Adit, yells at Johni to leave his sister alone and Yuda quickly steps in to save her. But does she feel grateful to him? Hell no! She’s pissed at him because now she has no job and no way to take care of both her and her kid brother. Yuda leaves, confused and annoyed by what has taken place.

Merantau 2That night, Yuda calls his mother to let her know how he’s doing in the big city, and notices across the street that Johni is at it again, taking Astri out of the trunk of his car and dragging her into his club. Yuda tries to save Astri again but is quickly beat down by Johni’s thugs. He recovers and saves Astri while at the same time smashing a bottle into the face of Ratger, Johni’s boss who is into some shady business such as human trafficking. He orders Johni to find the girl and bring her back so that he can ship her off with the rest of his captives.

Yuda takes Astri and Adit to the construction site where they will be safe and has a chat with Astri. He talks about his family and his older brother, how he looks up to him and aspires to be like. She tells her story about them being abandoned by their mother and father because they had too many kids and not enough money to feed them all. He tells her to get some sleep and that they will get her money that she left at her place before heading out of the city. Of course, its easier said than done as Johni’s goons are already there and chase them down. They kidnap Astri and Yuda goes after her.

Merantau 8Yuda makes his way up the apartment complex, fighting desperately to rescue her before Ratger can hurt her. He runs into one of his guards, a man from Yuda’s village named Eric who he met briefly on his way to Jakarta. They fight and he ultimately defeats him, but Eric finds some good in himself and saves Yuda from gunfire. Enraged, Yuda makes his way to Ratger’s loft but Astri is no where to be found. Sadly, Ratger already had his way with her and is on his way to take her to the loading docks where he’ll ship her in a storage container with the rest. After hitching a ride to the dock, Yuda confronts Ratger’s men before fighting 2-on-1 against Ratger himself and his assistant Luc.

Before I talk about the ending of this film, let’s talk about some impressions of the movie so far. I have to say, on a broad note, Merantau is very similar to Ong Bak as far as basic plot structure. A young man from a small village travels to the big city and is immediately encountered with the good as well as the evils of the modern city life. It’s simple enough and a well-proven jumping off point for many actors and directors. Personally, it can get a bit stale after a while. But, I think this movie brought enough uniqueness to set it apart from its Thai predecessor.

Merantau 5For one thing, Iko Uwais is a lot different from Tony Jaa. Tony Jaa brought a lot of raw energy and power into his movies. He’s not much of an actor, at least not in his first couple of films, but when he’s pissed off you do not want to get in his way. Iko takes more of an innocent approach in his acting, partly because the role demanded it. He’s rather soft-spoken and very calm in his actions. This isn’t to say that he can’t turn on the badassness when he needs to. But, he brings a bit of innocent charm that adds a lot to his performance. Apparently the director, Gareth Evans, was drawn to this quality as well as his enthusiasm when he encountered Iko years before while shooting a documentary on the art of Silat. He says that he saw a star quality in him and immediately worked to get him working on his first film. Granted, he may not have done too much as far as intense acting in this movie, but he shows sparks of something more in his talent that once honed, I think his talent and personality could definitely raise him to martial arts legend status.

The one core trait that could be found and was subject to many complaints in Tony Jaa’s first two films was the presence of a goal. In Ong Bak, he was after the head of a Buddha statue that was stolen from his village. In Tom Yum Goong/The Protector, he fought to rescue his elephant. What I like about Merantau is that the goal isn’t set from the beginning. You follow his character while he is on his journey and you experience the way he gets tangled up into the situation with Astri. Sure, saving a damsel in distress is cliche in itself, but for some reason it felt more grounded of a premise and something that everyone can latch onto. I know that many people here in the States did not get the significance of the elephant in TYG, so this feels more down-to-earth and steady platform for what is one of the true highlights of the movie: the action.

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Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, etc have kung fu and its various forms, Tony Jaa has Muay Thai, and now Iko Uwais has Silat. Silat is martial arts style centered in the Malay Archipelago and has grown into many different variations over generations. The style that Iko practices in this movie, known as Pencak silat, was established by freedom fighters in the 1950’s and utilizes functionality and self-defense as opposed to sparring. It’s quite evident when you watch this movie that Iko style is more couner-based as he tends to use the enemies momentum to lock their limbs and attack their joints, immobilizing them. It’s also a rather grounded technique, so instead of high-flying spin kicks and jumps, you get more low attacks and mid-section kicks. Also, you’ll notice his center of gravity is a bit lower than most fighters as he tends to focus on the lower body to sort of break down the opponent before delivering the final blow. It’s very intriguing to watch and quite hypnotizing at times. Silat is also based off of animal movements, as the stories of how Silat originated involves a woman studying the movements of a tiger as it fought a giant bird, some say it fought a monkey instead. Either way, his stances reflect a tiger claw and kind of looks like he’s rearing up to attack like a tiger as well. It’s definitely a unique style of fighting and at first it may seem dull in comparison to Muay Thai, Kung Fu, Tae Kwon Do, or Karate, but the more you see it in action, the more you can appreciate how elegant yet effective Silat really is.

So, Iko uses Silat to beat the crap out of a bunch of guys in this movie, and damn does it look good. Iko definitely has the athleticism to pull of some great techniques and moves, and the director Gareth Evans does a great job of capturing it all. My major complaint with action movies in Hollywood, whether its the Bourne series or even The Avengers, is that when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, they tend to mask the inabilities of the actors with quick cuts and shaky camera shots. So in any given take, you’ll see one, maybe two moves pulled off at a time which makes everything very fast paced and choppy. It also doesn’t help that the camera is usually pushed really close in on the action so you can only see from the waste up and with all of the cuts, you just see flashes of an arm or the blur of a leg and that’s about it. Gareth seems to have seen a lot of martial arts movies from Hong Kong and other regions in Asia as he knows to pull back and let the actors do their thing. Having actors and stuntmen who are willing to do the task bumps up the authenticity of the movie and allows the cameraman to have longer takes where the actors pull off long strings of attacks and you can see everything. There is one scene where Iko walks into Johni’s club and clears the room all in one panning take. It looks great and shows how badass everyone involved is. This kind of filming gives way to a lot more impressive stunt work, and honestly, you’re just gonna have to see it yourself to see how great it looks.

Now, let’s talk about the end of the movie. I saved this for the end because even though this is an action movie, I thought the ending was actually pretty well done and a bit emotional. IF YOU’RE NOT INTERESTED IN BEING SPOILED FOR THE END OF THE MOVIE, SKIP THE NEXT PARAGRAPH.

Merantau 3So, Yuda fights Ratger and Luc in the docks while the women are trapped in a storage container. Yuda kills Luc and it’s now just him versus Ratger. Of course, Yuda kicks his ass and saves the women, including Astri. But, Ratger still has a bit of life left in him and pummels Yuda’s stomach with a steel pipe. Yuda delivers a final killing blow to Ratger before collapsing. Of course, this is a overly used plot twist and has been done numerous times. But, it’s not all that common in martial arts movies for the main actor to actually die. It’s happened, of course, but most of the movies I’ve seen, the good guy overcomes evil. This time, he pays the price for his kindness and dies in Astri’s arms. He tells her to go to his family who will keep them safe and take care of them. He also tells her to let his mother know about what happened and that he wasn’t able to complete his journey. This would have been a lot more cheesier if it wasn’t for the fact that Yuda was actually a REALLY nice guy who was only doing what he thought was right. He has a strong sense of justice and that was evident throughout the film. So seeing him not being able to go on after this was rather sad despite the cliched approach. Astri and Adit settle in the village and live with Yuda’s family. Adit starts to go to school and as he leaves, Yuda’s mother sees his son in little Adit, sort of symbolizing that his memory and legacy will live on in them as he gave them a second chance in life through his sacrifice. This is probably very mundane for everyone else, but it’s not too often that you get a solid ending in a martial arts movie. I was quite pleased with how it all concluded.

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Seeing the preview for this movie years ago, I was a bit interested in it but the style and premise seemed run-of-the-mill and I quickly forgot about it. But, after the release of his second film, The Raid: Redemption (which I will be reviewing soon) here in the states and with all of the rave reviews it was getting from everyone, I had to check out his first film. And, I’m so glad that I did. Despite its borrowed premise, it had enough in it character, plot and action-wise to set it apart from it’s predecessors and to pave the way for a new actor to enter the ring. With the way that his career is going nowadays, we can expect to see a lot more from Iko Uwais and hopefully it will bring more talent from Indonesia as Tony Jaa did in Thailand. If you’re interested in a fun martial arts movie with a unique style of fighting being introduced, a solid plot and an actor who can pull it off, check out Merantau.