Before I begin my review, let me just say that there's only 4 things wrong with this movie: 1. Renaming it Merantau Warrior for the Malaysian market. 2. It's an Ong-Bak rip-off. 3. Casting Christine Hakim just to give the movie credibility. 4. It's not a Hollywood movie.
After hearing so much rave from silat friends in Malaysia regarding Merantau, I finally relented and watched it, not without a lot of doubt. The first thing that cheesed me off was the fact that they chose to add the word "Warrior" to the title for the Malaysian market, adding absolutely nothing.
That, and the fact that it follows hot on the heels of movies like Ong-Bak and Tom Yum Goong made me think that Gareth Evans (writer, editor and director) was trying to cash in on a bankable genre. Bad enough the storyline is cliched beyond repair: Yuda (played by Iko Uwais) arrives in Jakarta from Sumatera to find work as a silat instructor, but winds up saving a young girl from prostitution and her little brother from begging on the streets. He gets on the bad side of two human traffickers, who decide that not only do they want the girl back, but Yuda's head on a platter.
When I saw Christine Hakim as Yuda's mother, my eyes rolled: A big name star just to keep the crowd interested. Deja vu Puteri Gunung Ledang. All of this prodded me to try and make the best of the rest of my day.
Then it happened.
A tingling at the back of my head (a little like my Silat Sense that tells me it's time to lose weight and start training again) told me: Stay. There's something different about this. So I stayed. And I watched. And I loved it to bits.
It's impossible to review this movie and tell you why I loved it without giving it all away. So, Gareth my friend, I apologise profusely, but the world has got to know what a gem you've produced here.
My biggest peeve about silat movies is how the choreography would always seem to be a taekwondo bout (no offence to my TKD brothers) with some totally irrelevant bunga thrown in. Local tv series and movies make it seem every hero and bad guy was a state champion or at least a pattern junkie. They'd stand there and get hit, and then proceed to hit the guy back, and then do a kembangan. (What the hell?)
However, Iko, a first time actor and exponent in Silat Tiga Berantai, kicks ass in Tapak 3, 4 and 5. And believe me, a silat fan would know the difference. His entering and countering are fluid to perfection, making it more plausible that the bad guys can't hit him. He's not there when they try to connect.
The locks are believable and the multi-level groundfighting truly showcases the variability and agility of silat. It made me so proud, I almost started talking to him on the screen (Look out! Sweep him! Break him! There! There! He's open!)
Iko also keeps the acrobatics to a minimum, and stays grounded most of the time, which adds more realism to the fights. Although the official media states that Iko utilises the Harimau style of silat in the fight scenes, you'll notice that choreographer Edwel Datuk Rajo Gampo Alam has interwoven breathtaking fighting scenes at all ranges and levels and with a mixture of other silat styles and some freestyle melded in.
Understandably, this is not a drama. It's a martial arts film, and that's what everyone should expect. However, Iko's lack of acting skills is supported well by the rest of the cast, especially Sisca Jessica, who plays Astri, the spitfire we all want to save, and her spunky young brother, Adit, played by Yusuf Aulia.
But because it's not a drama, Gareth and his amazingly capable cinematographer Matt Flannery allow Iko and the stunt men to do their jobs: Fight. The camera never gets in the way of the combat scenes, in fact, it follows Iko most of the time like a third person shooter, and you see the bad guys at the same time he does, which tends to jar the heart here and there.
Matt's previous cinematic experience also packages the film nicely with beautiful scenes of the Sumateran countryside and the seedier rows of Jakarta.
Kudos also goes to the stuntmen, whom I believe are the real heroes of any martial arts film. It's their job to make the hero look good. And these guys get poled, fall off buildings in full camera view, get slammed into the side of shipping containers and what not. You guys are the best.
So yes, there are fight scenes galore and if you asked me to pick, I'd say all of them. But if you forced me to pick, I'll say it's the penultimate elevator fight scene between Iko and Yayan Ruhian, who plays, Eric, a disillusioned silat fighter-turned thug-for-hire.
They meet early on in the film, which sets the irony for Yuda, who is forced to fight his silat brother to save the chick. His last words to Eric before refusing to kill him: "I will never become what you have become" sums up the whole idea of Merantau, becoming a man of your choosing.
Of course, the fight at the docks above the shipping containers where Yuda despatches untrained dock workers from a height is fun to watch, especially since you can see he means more business than before. Yuda started off the movie being very compassionate, using locks, throws and strikes to disable opponents. But as the movie progresses and he becomes more frustrated, he realises that more is needed to stop the bad guys, and he starts breaking limbs.
Gareth's store of movie blood is virtually emptied in the final fight between Yuda and the two human traffickers, Ratger (played by a maniacal but funny Mads Koudal) and Luc (the cool wushu man Laurent Lohan Busson).
Now, as the movie came to a close, I fully expected Gareth to pull a Hollywood. With a movie that could garner so much attention in South East Asia, who wouldn't want to do a Merantau 2? But he didn't, and that's what prompted me to write this review.
Yuda manages to kill Luc (by accident) and Ratger (on purpose), but not before being dealt a fatal blow himself. Yes, Yuda dies. But different from other heroes, Yuda makes a final sacrifice, and his dying words to Astri remind us that there is always hope, and that yes, you can go home, even if it is someone else's.
Don't expect a romance. You'll be disappointed. Watch Merantau if you want good fight scenes. Expect nothing more and you will be surprised by how much more you'll get.