That enigmatic title won’t win it any favors in the United States, but chopsocky fans generally are willing to overlook such things if action is delivered. It is.
Merantau refers to a rite of passage in the culture of young Yuda (newcomer Iko Uwais), who must leave his parents’ home in the poor farming village and travel to the big, bad city of Jakarta (not to be confused with “Gymkata”) to fend for himself in order to become a man.
Once there, Yuda finds homelessness … and trouble! Witnessing a kidnapped woman being dragged kicking and screaming toward a forced life of drug addiction and prostitution, he can’t idly stand by, so he attempts to save her with his admirable skills in the art of the Silat Harimau fighting style of tigers. Needless to say, this puts Yuda on the shit list of Jakarta’s crime lords.
Yes, writer/director/editor Gareth Evans’ story is as conventional as these things come, but he excels in staging the fight scenes. “Merantau” takes too long to get chugging, then excites in a tussle within a bar. Later, Yuda being chased by a motorcycle also gets viewers’ blood pumping.
The one shot, however, that will be associated forever with the flick occurs during a rooftop-to-rooftop chase, when Yuda leaps to one building, picks up a bamboo pole and turns just in time to plant it in the chest of his pursuer, mid-flight! It’s a stunner. You’ll wonder how they pulled it off as you reach for the rewind button. So good is the stunt that it merits its own piece among the special features, where you can see all 13 (!) takes of it.
From the inventiveness of the action, such as a bridge battle that finds Yuda dodging metal poles as he shields an orphan boy, it’s clear Evans would like to position Uwais as the next Jackie Chan. Problem is, the film dabbles in melodrama in between its bursts of action. With a coat of levity and 15 minutes shaven, “Merantau” would be a lot more fun.
I doubt Uwais will rise to rival even “Ong Bak”‘s Tony Jaa; still, this is worth a rental. The photography of the village sequences are gorgeous, especially on Blu-ray, and DP Matt Flannery paints the urban-jungle nightlife of Jakarta with a Sour Skittles-inspired palette. —Rod Lott