Indonesia (2009) Dir. Gareth Evans

The 2011 action packed hit The Raid may have brought Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais to the world’s attention, along with his native fighting style Silat, but, as this 2009 film retro-released in the wake of The Raid’s success reveals, this wasn’t the first screen outing for Uwais.

Much simpler story wise and in keeping with Indonesian tradition, Yuda (Uwais), is a young man from Minangkabau, West Sumatra about to engage in his merantau, a long standing rite of passage tradition where the males of the village strike out alone to make a living in bustling metropolis of Jakarta. Yuda plans to teach Silat but is put off by the lack of opportunities and premises.

During Yuda’s first day his wallet is stolen by a young orphan boy Adit (Yusuf Aulia) but Yuda ends up saving Adit’s sister Astri (Sisca Jessica) from being mistreated by her boss Johnni (Alex Abbad). Johnni supplies women to European human trafficker Ratger (Mads Koudal) and abducts Astri for his latest batch. Yuda sees this and steps in once again to act as her protector, making himself a target for Ratger and his associate Luc (Laurent Buson).

Whilst it is lazy to make comparisons between Merantau and Tony Jaa’s breakthrough hit Ong Bak, the similarities are inescapable in terms of the fish-out-of-water story and the grimy suburban aesthetic of the setting on downtown Jakarta. Even the fighting style of Silat shares some characteristics with the Muay Thai employed in Jaa’s films, whilst Iko Uwais could pass as Jaa’s brother with his floppy hairstyle.

But be under no illusion that Gareth Evans and co set out to clone Ong Bak or use Uwais as “the next Tony Jaa” despite the assumed mirroring of Jaa’s film. There is an urgency and grittiness about Evans’s work and application of the fight scenes which don’t feel like the occasional “showing off” of Jaa’s films – not to belittle or undermine Jaa’s incredible physical dexterity, athleticism and impressive martial arts skills.

The first thirty minutes or so are spent introducing the cast, establishing the story and world building which may seem like a dull prospect for action fans. Rest assured once these formalities are out of the way, it is mostly all go for the remainder of the film, delivering bone crunching scrap after bone crunching scrap.

Yuda shows off his skills in a brief display which pays homage to the similar openings of the classic Hong Kong martial arts films of the 1970’s before introducing us to Yuda’s mother Wulan (Christine Hakim) who clearly isn’t relishing letting her youngest son go. On the bus to Jakarta Yuda meets Eric (Yayan Ruhian) another Silat practitioner who warns Yuda that the city is vastly different from the country.

Eric appears as a bit of a shady character at first but when they part ways in Jakarta, he seems okay, although Yuda’s farewell sentiment that they should meet up again proves ominous. Without spoiling anything you can probably guess how this ends up but Evans handles this inevitability in one of the more poignant – and violent – scenes in the film.

There is always the danger of the emotional or romantic subplots being overtly slushy and detrimental to action films but this is one occasion where Evans strikes the right balance. Astri’s presence may indicate her role bring Yuda’s love interest but she is actually more a means to an end for the noble young man to attain his goal of maturity and responsibility.

Being foreign, Ratger veers the closest to being a stereotype central villain, pulling the strings of the local underworld scum and bringing misery with them to the capital, much in the same way an Asian villain would in a Hollywood film. Yet it is the European élan that gives them a subtle coldness and restraint to their menace, contrasted by the sleazy arrogance of the native ne’er-do-wells.

However Ratger and his tacit bespectacled partner Luc both are capable of fighting and have the honour of being Yuda’s opponents in the exciting climactic battle. Granted they last longer than Yuda’s other challengers in the big fight but, just like a video game, the “Boss” has to be the toughest fighter for the hero to face as these two certainly fight dirty and cause maximum physical damage to Yuda.

As we’ve seen in The Raid and it’s far more brutal sequel Evans and Uwais know how to put together some incredible fight scenes which look and feel natural while embracing the requisite sizzle for that sense of spectacle. Some Jaa style close combat strikes are present, with a light Jackie Chan influence via use of props and some wire work to enhance the bumps, result in hard hitting and exhilarating punch ups.

Reportedly the stunt team had only worked on wire fu fantasy films prior to this so they were thrown rather in the deep end in terms of switching to such direct and relatively frills free style of fight film. To their credit they pull it off with aplomb and seamlessly enough to disguise any uncertainty and inexperience, the standard and commitment to their craft is that high.

Iko Uwais was an unknown here and Evans’s risk casting a new face paid off. We know him now as the stern, crop topped SWAT team member from The Raid films but as Yuda, Uwais is an earnest country boy who can kick some serious butt! His star quality may be nascent but the potential for growth is very evident, as is the blueprint for some of the fights for The Raid – the one in the confines of a lift comes to mind.

A hugely fun and equally intense fight fest, Merantau is also the film where director Gareth Evans turned a corner and while this lacks the gloss of The Raid, one can see he was keen on bringing something new to the martial arts genre here. If we only knew…