Footsteps may have been Gareth Evans’ first feature-length film, but his follow up, Merantau, represents a whole lot of other firsts: It was his first movie filmed in Indonesia, and his first filmed in the Indonesian language. It was his first film to star martial artist Iko Uwais, future star of the Raid films, and it was his first firmly within the martial arts genre. Unfortunately, a first it would not be was Evans’ first wholly successful feature film. But we’ll table that bit for now.
We open with a gorgeous shot of an idyllic open field in Sumatra where Yuda (Uwais) bends in prayer before engaging in a demonstration of his skill in Silat (the martial art Uwais specializes in) as his mother explains in voiceover narration the tradition of Merantau, a sort of Indonesian Rumspringa where he will leave his rural home to venture into the big city and make a man of himself. We get a handful of those scenes – you know the ones – of Yuda and his family eating dinner and smiling and laughing at nothing in particular while very sappy strings swell in the background and his mother offers sage bits of advice. This goes on for 12 whole minutes before Yuda finally gets out of dodge and on the bus to Jakarta, where a suspicious individual named Eric (Yayan Ruhian) notices Yuda’s Silat badge on his backpack and cautions him that, as a fellow Silat practitioner (what are the odds?), the world doesn’t pay well for their kind of skills – at least, not when applied to anything aboveboard. On arriving in Jakarta, Yuda has his wallet stolen by the young street urchin Adit (Yusuf Aulia). Chasing him down, Yuda happens to see Adit’s older sister, Astri (Sisca Jessica) in a violent argument with her boss at a sketchy dance club. Quashing the fight leads to Yuda being drawn into Jakarta’s seedy underbelly, where he’ll be pit up against the creepy Welsh mob boss Ratger (creepy Welshman Mads Koudal, returning from Footsteps) and his brother Luc (Laurent Buson) to topple their human trafficking ring and maybe do some good on his spiritual journey.
All that circuitous plot takes us about half an hour into the movie, and it’s another ten minutes or so before we get a proper fight sequence. It’s hard to put enough emphasis on it, but this forty-five minutes or so fucking draaaaaaags. For a movie that seems largely put together to serve as a vehicle for Uwais and his particular branch of Silat, it really takes its sweet time getting to the ass-kicking that it surely must know is the reason any of us are here. And the idea that Evans and Uwais just had so much faith in the extremely rote dramatic material that it just had to all be included is a little mystifying; do we need five minutes of Yuda shooting the shit with the guy who runs the diner where his wallet is stolen? How many times do we need to cycle through the same scenes of Astri or Adit or both being kidnapped to jolt Yuda into action? Individual scenes lurch awkwardly past their natural stopping points as clumsy dialogue fails to give us any reason to care about what we’re seeing. Structurally, the film Merantau most calls to mind is 2003’s Ong Bak (just swap out Uwais for Tony Jaa and Silat for Muay Thai), but that’s a movie that knew to string together just enough plot to hang an impressive series of stunts and ass-beatings on without getting bogged down in overreaching character drama. The titular framework of Yuda’s journey seems like maybe it’s going for a Candide-esque depiction of Yuda leaving his idyllic home and butting up against the cruelty of the world at large, but the script doesn’t say much about this beyond “sometimes you leave your idyllic home and butt up against the cruelty of etc.”
But the movie is not without its consolations; as I briefly touched on, the cinematography by Matt Flannery (who would work on all four of Evans’ full-length features) gets the most out of some very lush use of color, especially in those early scenes in Sumatra; a lot of Evans’ visual tics start to develop here as well, from the careful use of horizontal tracking shots to reveal information in the frame to the signature rotation of the camera around the Z-axis used to follow as Yuda chases Adit down an alley or drag the viewer down to the ground with Yuda after he suffers an early beating.
And those fight scenes – yes, the fight scenes are, to use the common parlance, pretty dope. There are a couple visceral bottle-smashing fights in Ratger’s club, where broken glass and furniture flies with the same abandon as the fighters themselves; a fight on a footbridge scored with the percussive, almost musical sound of metal pipes on concrete and bone; a brawl in a construction site that makes full use of the vertical space of the set; and finally, a multi-part roving beat-em-up that leads from a parking garage, up through Ratger’s fancy apartment building (early shades of The Raid), into a close-quarters two-hander in an elevator, and back out to a loading dock where Yuda fights both of the evil brothers (Uwais participating in two-on-one fights involving siblings would become something of a pet theme with Evans) in a labyrinth of shipping containers.
But, to put it bluntly, they aren’t enough; the film takes so long to get going and stops so frequently that the fights never seem to make up enough of the 112 minute runtime (and if the International Cut drags, I can only imagine what a draining experience the 135 minute Indonesian Cut is). Uwais himself has a natural screen presence, but he’s given such a nothing role that, apart from his impressive fighting skills, he just comes off as a blank slate – and certainly none of the other actors do any heavy lifting (excepting maybe Ruhian – who would also return for The Raid series – making a decent impression in his too-small role). The balance between story and action can be a tricky one for the martial arts film; certainly Merantau would not be the first to get by on its fights and nothing else – if, indeed, it did get by, which I’m sorry to say it does not. But there’s good news, too: with this film, it would seem Evans et al worked all of the bugs out, because their next go round would be the stuff of action movie legend.
Up Next: The Raid: Redemption (2011)