Before the head-slamming hallway battles, machete-wielding criminal underlings, and bloodthirsty psychopaths unfazed by fluorescent light bulbs jutting out of their necks found in “The Raid”, Gareth Evans had already blown away action filmmakers and martial arts fans across the globe with Merantau. Populated by a group of highly skilled martial artists from across Indonesia, “Merantau” is the very definition of a great first impression – of Evans, leading man Iko Uwais, co-stars Yayan Ruhian, Laurent “Lohan” Buson, and the art of Silat to be seen on film for the first time by millions of martial arts fans worldwide.
Iko Uwais steps into the spotlight for the very first time in his debut role of Yuda, the hero of the film. Uwais is a natural leading man, a blend of a supreme alpha male more than capable of fighting his way out of any predicament with the kind of in-over-his-head underdog found in most of Jackie Chan’s movies. Yayan Ruhian plays Yuda’s rather reluctant adversary Eric, a character with much greater pathos and far less bloodlust than you’ll probably be expecting if you’ve only seen him in “The Raid”, but an unstoppable beast when he’s called upon to raise his mighty fists. No such empathy is afforded to the villains of the film, Ratger and Luc, portrayed by Mads Koudal and Laurent “Lohan” Buson, a pair of utterly savage human traffickers not afraid to get their hands dirty if they must. Their operation is brought to our hero’s attention after he bumps into Astri and Adit, the latest victims of their evildoings played by Sisca Jessica and Yusuf Aulia.
Yuda, a highly-skilled Silat exponent in West Sumatra, has reached the phase of life known as “Merantau” (wandering), a rite of passage where young men depart from their families to experience life in the outside world. On his bus ride to Jakarta, he befriends another Silat expert named Eric, and the two make plans to meet again someday in the city. Yuda’s barely made into Jakarta before his wallet is stolen by ten-year old pick pocket Adit, but his chivalrous side shows when he comes to the defense of the pickpocket’s sister, Astri, who is being beaten by her boss. Before long, Yuda finds himself called upon to be Astri and Adit’s guardian against the vengeful whims of her former employer and his higher ups who run a human trafficking ring in the heart of Jakarta.
“Merantau” takes it’s time to get the action started, which would seem to be a risky approach for an Indonesian movie starring a former truck driver in his film debut and directed by a Welsh filmmaker most people at the time had never heard of. However, the film succeeds in keeping the viewer’s attention thanks to its opening training sequence and a brief sparring match with Yuda and his father early on. Both give the audience just enough of a taste of the Silat-driven action that the film has in store that they are perfectly willing to let the film lay the groundwork of its first act. (Note, the longer Indonesian version includes a sequence of Yuda and Eric entering an underground fight club where Eric pummels his opponent within an inch of his life!) The opening training sequence is as much the audience’s introduction to Iko Uwais as it is their introduction to the art of Silat, which until the release of “Merantau” had not really been showcased significantly in a major martial arts film. It certainly is a rarity for a new action star and his martial art to make their cinematic debut simultaneously, and you’d be hard pressed to find an audience member who isn’t dying to see both in action after seeing the power and grace of each so masterfully delivered on screen.
Once the film moves into Jakarta, the audience’s patience is rewarded with Evans’ throwing a near-endless onslaught of action in your face. While Yuda’s sparring match with his father has very much the feel of the introductory training sequence, as if the father wants to fine tune any defects in his son’s fighting prowess before sending him out into the world, the odds are very much stacked against Yuda when he’s called upon to come to Astri and Adit’s aid. If you’ve never seen Silat on film before, the stellar action direction is twice as impactful due to the thrill of seeing an exponent of this unique art doing his stuff. In keeping with the methodology of Silat, specifically a variant known as Minangkabau Harimau or “Tiger style”, Uwais consistently lowers his center of gravity and adopts a crouched stance, while forming claws with his hands, making the area he plans to attack quite unpredictable. He actually goes for his enemy’s legs quite often and his approach to combat makes him significantly harder to knock off balance, or even for opponents to take advantage of the situation if he is.
The film does a magnificent job at making Yuda seem on the defensive without making him appear ineffectual by pitting him against groups of street thugs, most not skilled enough to pose any threat to him individually but able to overwhelm him together. Yuda’s rescue of Astri and Adit, which essentially breaks the action into three individual fights, each adopt this approach, while the film gets its most stunt-heavy in an “Ong Bak”-esque chase sequence with Yuda evading another swarm of henchmen. Suffice it to say that the stunt men take some serious abuse here in the form of three-story falls, bamboo poles, and motorcycle mishaps. The never-ending supply of henchmen begin to pose an ever-decreasing threat to Yuda as the film progresses, however, which is when the real foes enter the equation.
The first comes in the form of an elevator brawl with Yuda and Eric. For reasons that will be kept secret, the two friends find themselves on opposing sides over the course the film and are ultimately forced to do battle. Uwais and Yayan Ruhian do not let the audience down here, and our hero reaches his second major challenge in the form of a two-on-one showdown with the two kingpins of the trafficking ring. The psychosis of Mad Koudal’s performance is as powerful as ever once the climax arrives, and Lohan Buson is truly something else with the arsenal of swift, powerful kicks he commands. Like all great villains, he relishes the chance to show up the hero, and in the midst of his duel with Yuda grabs his own leg at its high point as he prepares to land an axe kick, as if to say to his enemy (and the viewer), “How do ya like that? Full split, baby!”
It may seem harder to review “Merantau” exclusively on its own terms with “The Raid” films now having followed it. Nevertheless, the film is an exciting cinematic debut for Iko Uwais, Gareth Evans, Yayan Ruhian, Lohan Buson, and the art of Silat, one that manages to be far more captivating, and even emotional than you’d expect. True, the audience is just a tad slighted by being shown the insidious Silat dagger the kerambit in the film’s opening, only to not see it put to use until the final fight of “The Raid 2”, but what are you gonna do?
- Gareth Evans first discovered Iko Uwais while he was filming a documentary on Silat in Indonesia. After being highly impressed by Uwais’ skills, Evans recruited him to play the lead in “Merantau”
- Yayan Ruhian had taught Silat for many years and was originally one of the film’s fight choreographers. When Gareth Evans was having difficulty casting the role of Eric in the film, Ruhian decided to give it a shot, and voila, the deal was done, the role secured!
- Laurent “Lohan” Buson trained at the legendary Shaolin Temple in China under the tutelage of Shi Yong Xu from 2000 to 2001. He later studied at the Beijing Sports University, and would become one of the founding members of Z-Team Films, who are currently set to release their first feature film “Die Fighting.”
Film Rating: 8/10