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Silat and Iko Uwais and merantau - odd words that fans of martial arts flicks need to get comfy with
on November 12, 2011
Should you learn that the guy you're about to brawl with hails from some humble village in the boonies, it's best to back away slowly. As demonstrated by characters played by Tony Jaa and even Bruce Lee (in WAY OF THE DRAGON) and now by newcomer Iko Uwais, them farm boys from the sticks are not to be trifled with. Here's MERANTAU, Indonesia's try at getting relevant on the martial arts scene. And while the asskickery is noteworthy, the actual story predictably lets you down. What, can't William Goldman pen a kung fu screenplay? Get off your high horse, William Goldman!
But William Goldman did not write the screenplay for MERANTAU. Instead, it was some dude named Gareth Evans (who also directed the film). And so what we get is pacing that is lethargic and plot points that have been beaten down to death. The narrative essentially acts as a framing device for the fighty fights. But if you're a fighty fight fan - and who isn't? - then you can probably shrug off the sluggish storytelling. In rural West Sumatera an age-old rite of passage called "merantau" is observed. In a custom of self-discovery, the young adult male must depart from home and venture abroad to prove his worth. Yuda (Iko Uwais) embarks on his merantau, making a beeline for the bustling city of Jakarta. But, once there, he learns that his intended digs has been burnt down to the ground, the rest of his pre-arranged plans shredded away. In the big city Yuda had hung his hat on teaching the local martial arts of Silat. Hard to do that when you're abruptly homeless.
Things really go south when Yuda rescues a young dancer/stripper named Astri and he ends up caught in a running battle with an over-the-top Euro-nasty (Mads Koudal) plying the skin trade. As the film's big bad, Mads Koudal is such a relentless ham that fellow actors of Danish heritage like Viggo Mortensen and Scarlett Johansson are hanging their heads in shame. Even Brigitte Nielsen is mortified.
One problem is the imbalance in pace. The film's deliberate first hour crawls along as the screenplay writer (who isn't William Goldman) insists on immersing the viewer into Yuda's culture and local customs. Conversely, the second half dispenses with plot altogether and is pretty much one sequence after another showcasing Iko Uwais' smooth application of Silat. Iko Uwais handles himself okay with his dialogue but he shines most when he's doling out the asswhippings. No, his style isn't as visceral or acrobatic as Tony Jaa's bonebruising Muay Thai. But he brings his own sense of grace and elegance to the table. It helps that the combat sequences, which are damn entertaining, are staged to feature Uwais in as many full body shots as possible so there's no doubting that it's him performing all the moves. My favorite is probably the no-holds-barred tussle held in the confined space of an elevator. It adds a measure of believability that Uwais doesn't emerge from every skirmish unscathed. He absorbs his own share of punishment; he doesn't duck every blow. With Jaa's having fled to become a hermit in the wilds, the slot for the world cinema's most dynamic martial artist is wide open. I will say that, during the bits where you actually have to act, Iko Uwais exudes a more charismatic presence than Jaa. MERANTAU also features the calling card of the meager-budgeted, practical effects-heavy martial arts picture: we're treated to several wince-inducing collisions between Uwais's opponents and hurtful surfaces such as cement floors and wheelbarrows and the ubiquitous glass table. Good times.