Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais' first foray into the wild and wooly world of martial arts cinema may wind up known to history principally for how it laid the groundwork for The Raid, but their Merantau is not just important for what it taught the two men: it is a vividly memorable success on its own terms.
Written and directed by Gareth (Huw?) Evans
With Iko Uwais (Yuda), Sisca Jessica (Astri), Alex Ahbad (Johni), Mads Koubal, dubbed by Philip Hersh ("Mr. Boss" Ratger), Laurent Buson (Luc), and Yayan Ruhian (Eric)
Spoiler alert: moderate
Let's take a step back now, to when before Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais were household names. At least in my household. When I'm talking to myself.
By 2009, Evans had made but a single feature film, called Footsteps, which I'd never heard of before today. It's surely worth looking into, but it is little-seen and a viewing of the trailer suggests there's a reason; for our purposes here, we're more interested in the products of his Indonesian exile—and the career Evans jumpstarted there with the help of his muse.
I've previously related the events of Evans and Uwais' fateful meeting in Jakarta, but we haven't spoken in depth of Merantau, the immediate consequence of their combination. It was a learning experience for both of them, but that's obvious only now, in retrospect. After all, only with The Killing that was The Raid could it ever seem fair to relegate Merantau to the lowly station of Evans' own Killer's Kiss.
But the comparisons are indeed there for the making, even if it is only in the event of a masterpiece that one would be likely to turn their thoughts to Stanley Kubrick's training-wheels feature while watching a silat fighter tirelessly kick people in the face and crotch.
Yet on a basic level they're practically the same movie. Each revolves around that most elementary of noir scenarios: the decent man who comes into the life a fundamentally good but fallen woman, and resolves to save her from the brutality of the evil men who want her.
Merantau's decent man is, of course, the decent man of all Evans' martial arts films, Iko Uwais, and this was not just his first collaboration with Evans but his acting debut—and he's already very good. This is not to imply that the role is tremendously sophisticated, but Uwais, even here, is always a step above just "functional," despite the finely-machined functionality that has continued to define the violence-prone protagonists Evans has written for him, wisely not outrunning his leading man's learning curve.
Here, Uwais is Yuda, a young buck from rural Sumatra. He is undertaking the "merantau" of the title, the journey into the world that everyone must make to come of age and truly become a man.
Frankly, it sounds made up. I mean, come on, this can't even be a real place!
To this end, he has left his village and traveled to the unnamed City—Palembang, perhaps. While partly filmed in the capital, it certainly isn't meant to be the Jakarta we now know and love, unless they simply didn't bother to show us Yuda on a boat.
En route, he makes the acquaintance of a slightly older fellow, who carried out his own merantau years ago. He gives Yuda some vague but well-meaning advice. Look closely and mark him.
Real close now.
C'mon. A little closer.
In 2009 it probably wasn't absolutely obvious that this unassuming man, one Eric, would return as an antagonist. However, from the distance of 2014, you'll recognize him as a younger Yayan Ruhian—or you easily might not, since at this point he's not yet decided to look as if he lives in a cave. If you do recognize him, you realize immediately that Evans probably didn't bring him on just to spout a few words of wisdom and then vanish; you'll also recall that he has never once been a good guy in a Gareth Evans joint yet.
But here, in his own first film appearance, he comes the closest. Representing Yuda's possible future as much as Yuda represents his past, as Eric Ruhian turns in the most nuanced, conflicted, and best performance in the film—despite being in it for all of about eight minutes, four of which involve kicking and punching and another two of which involve... well, best not to spoil it, but it's not acting in the classical sense, unless you refer to the grand guignol tradition as "classic." And maybe you really should, because Ruhian's denouement is truly excellent.
Also present is our second favorite performer from The Raid, one Donny Alamsyah. He plays—you guessed it!—Yuda's brother. But if you were waiting for him to show up to fight alongside his screen sibling—or even to have more than four lines and forty-five seconds of screentime—then you might find yourself extremely disppointed.
Once in the City, Yuda is immediately confronted with the poverty and immorality of urban life. His naive ideas of teaching silat go nowhere, he finds that the place where he was going to stay is a vacant lot, and he winds up sleeping beneath the soaring highrises of the City on a construction site, his home the confines of a concrete pipe. Not long after, he meets Astri, a dancer in the midst of being slapped around by her manager.
Being (as noted) decent, Yuda intervenes. This being the real world, his intervention leads to her losing her job—and, ultimately, to being targeted for kidnap and sex slavery, when her manager can't come up with enough other "fresh" girls to satisfy his bosses, the evil European traffickers who need to make a standard shipment to their own clients.
The first act of Merantau is a swift but visually effective exploration of the decaying City; the second and third revolve around the escalating war between Yuda and the slavers, a pair of (presumably) Dutch brothers. And they are the oddest thing to find in Merantau, because they are not just better crafted characters than you would expect in this early effort, they are superior to any of Evans' chief villains to date.
They are not, of course, anything quite like three-dimensional human beings. The older brother, Ratger, continually referred to as "Mr. Boss" by his Indonesian flunky, is far too snidely in his whiplash for anybody's good but the audience's (and the weird, dubbed voice doesn't help). But he is ridiculously enjoyable to hate. There is a delicious scene where a bottle has been smashed into his face, but he is so involved in his vengeful ranting that he paces around his lair for a full two minutes with the green glass shards still embedded in his skin. And, when he finally notices, he rips one of the pieces out—so he can cut his message of disappointment into his subordinate's own cheek.
I think "anger" is the emotion Mads Koubal is going for here, but I just can't be sure.
However, in the midst of such delightful cartoon supervillainy, there is a curious dynamic between the two siblings that utterly works; and strangely enough their intense debate over what to do about Yuda is one of the highlights of the film.
But that's not all there is to say about the bros. Somehow Evans forgot in The Raid—and he forgot again, as we'll see, in The Raid 2—what he already knew in Merantau: the ultimate villains of your martial arts movie are far more effective when they, too, know martial arts.
I have no idea what martial art or arts Mads Koubal and Laurent Buson are deploying in that climactic scene—it's pretty definitely not silat, and between that axe kick and the attempt at some facsimile of a tatsumaki senpukyaku, I wonder if Buson didn't train under Gouken with Ryu and Ken. But unlike Tama in The Raid, or the bosses we'll come to know and be bored by in its sequel, it's a genuine pleasure to see the chief antagonists actually fight rather than cower, or else ineptly attempt to fight.
See, I can actually understand how these guys became bosses in the first place.
The happy outcome of this is that there is never a deficit of fighting in Merantau. It is not, to be sure, the balls-deep action of The Raid—perhaps only 25% of Merantau's running time is devoted to combat, versus something like eighty for Evans' next feature.
It is also not close to as well-choreographed as The Raid: there remains a stagy fakeness to a significant portion of the martial arts spectacle, noticeably when it involves more than three combatants. Here, you're bound to get that old sinking feeling, that the fight extras are each waiting their turn, because to take on the hero more than one at a time simply wouldn't be fair. The quantum leap Evans would take two years later, and Uwais along with him as his choreographer, is not yet evident.
Of course, it may also be a matter of resources—fewer available takes and less time to rehearse. It can't help but be noticed that during the final battle all the bodies that Yuda has tranquilized just moments before vanish once the real fight with the master villains begins—no doubt because Evans couldn't afford to pay them to just lay around the set and pretend to be dead or unconscious.
The stuntwork on the other hand—absent comparisons to what would come later—is surely unimpeachable, and perhaps novel (though more likely novel only to me) in its capabilities. Merantau features deaths and cripplings by fall that are simply breathtaking (and often appear, frankly, back breaking).
Enemies are knocked off scaffolds and rooftops and shipping containers—and the camera tracks them all the way to the ground, even if they bounce off of something first. Evans' love for trauma to the throat has already arrived too: there is a wonderful moment of a man slamming into the edge of a container, trachea-first. In terms of bodily punishment, it is not The Raid, but it is, indeed, getting close.
There is at least one area where Merantau, however, exceeds its successor, and that is in its use of color. I didn't mention it my review of the latter film, because I didn't want it to sound like a serious criticism—and it would, because it often has been in the past.
But where The Raid is a washed-out and very blue-and-gray experience—to better evoke what Evans has described as a "survival horror" feel—Merantau is a truly vivid picture. (Perhaps it's because I recently watched it, or perhaps it's because De Palma is never far from my thoughts, but my mind went immediately to Carlito's Way.) A sequence in the brothers' sex slavery headquarters is a truly special treat, one of colorful form exploding ex nihilo out of a void of shapeless black.
And that climax—on a dockyard filled with almost-uniformly crimson shipping containers and lit by a bank of sodium lights that cast a fearsome vermillion blare upon all they touch—is surely amongst the very reddest extended set-pieces ever devised, and it is quite wonderful.
Since I have argued that the The Raid also has a powerful story to tell, I will not suggest that Merantau wins that contest also—but it is a near run thing. Merantau ends on a sadder note by far. And one wonders, had Kubrick been permitted to do what he wanted with the end of Killer's Kiss, if Merantau is the movie he would have made.
Well, it probably would've had somewhat less silat fighting. But you can never say for sure what might have been.
Other reviews in this series:
Acts of killing, part I: The Raid
Acts of killing, part II: Dredd
Acts of killing, part IV: The Raid 2