Merantau ★★★½

What I enjoyed most about “Merantau” is when the focus turns to fighting, the film possesses the ability to take some of the more frustrating elements of modern martial arts pictures and find ways to make them more palatable. Consider, for example, when our protagonist finds himself facing more than ten men who wish to break his bones. Instead of forcing the audience to believe that one person can take on half a village and succeed, writer-director Gareth Evans is sharp enough to consider that perhaps it might be a good idea for our hero to even out the playing field by employing the environment to his advantage. In this scenario, the lead character decides to climb a nearby shipping container because some enemies will climb slower than others. Suddenly, taking on a group is much more manageable and we cannot help but to smile at the picture’s resourcefulness.

Merantau is similar to the Amish’s Rumpspringa, a rite of passage in which a young person is given a chance to leave the village and experience the world—whether it be for a time or forever, this is up to the participant. It is Yuda’s turn to journey and he hopes to go to Jakarta and teach “silat” (“pencak silat” in Indonesia), a form of martial arts most prevalent in Southeast Asia. But life has a habit of getting in the way of one’s immediate goals: the kind-hearted (and somewhat naive) Yuda feels it is his responsibility, following a chance encounter with a thief named Adit (Yusuf Aulia), to extricate a local dancer, Astri (Sisca Jessica), Adit’s elder sister, from becoming a victim of human trafficking led by two white men who have been friends since childhood (Mads Koudal, Laurent Buson). It takes nearly an hour for the picture to take off, for better or worse.

On the one hand, we are provided a clear trajectory of the story. We are made to understand the stakes and so we cannot help but to feel invested in the various goings-on. On the other hand, it is executed in such a melodramatic fashion that at times the picture puts on the skin of a soap opera rather than an adrenaline-fueled action flick. (That saccharine score that pops up when a sad moment occurs is unbearable.) The slow first hour will likely test the patience of viewers who simply wish to munch on a barrage of bloody, brutal violence.

In the middle of the extended exposition, I wondered that perhaps it would have been the better choice to eliminate the siblings’ syrupy subplot while still preserving the human trafficking angle. Yuda has the potential to become an interesting character outside of him breaking ribs, but he does not get a chance to grow or evolve in meaningful ways despite the story taking place within a span of three or four days—the siblings take up far too much screen time.

It is a shame, too, because Iko Uwais, who plays Yuda, is a charismatic performer. He has an accessible face, particularly the eyes, and the camera loves him when perfectly still and while executing rapid fire movements. Because he shines in both ends of the spectrum, it is best to have him front and center for the majority of the time. In addition, I admire that, like the great Jackie Chan (who is also a solid comic and dramatic actor), Uwais performs his own stunts. I am the type of viewer who is sensitive to edits—particularly in action movies. Thus, it is not at all a challenge for me to recognize when a stuntman is utilized.

Here, it is so wonderful that editing is minimized (or is it simply efficient?), and so hand-to-hand combat is often smooth. Evans is such an action maestro at heart because he does not allow the camera to sit still. He moves it with purpose and confidence. He has a way of staging the camera so that we can appreciate the actual battle in the battlefield—wether it be in a shipping yard, in a gentleman’s club, on rooftops, or inside a cramped elevator. And when it goes in for the tight shots of two people trading blows, there is a sense of immediacy.

When an action movie is shot beautifully, like a graceful dance, it is so obvious that a lot of thought is put into it. You just feel it in your bones. Action is supremely difficult to play off—and it is ironic that it is the genre in which unwise filmmakers feel they can throw a lot away and in the direction of the screen because “busyness” is a part of thrills (which is so, so wrong but I don’t want to digress since this is another conversation entirely)—because there is usually countless elements to consider in order to create a believable, entertaining, and worthwhile experience.

“Merantau” excels in terms of action, but it is bogged down somewhat by its human drama. I believe Evans knows this to be the case. And so it is not a surprise to me that his next film was “The Raid,” a non-stop action flick from its skin down to its marrow. But both are mere warm-ups to the astonishing, all-time great and extreme action picture “The Raid 2: Berandal.”