If any of you have seen The Raid, then the debut trailer for Dredd probably felt a little familiar. Law enforcement agents being forced to fight their way to the top of a fortified highrise full of bad guys? Yea, that’s The Raid right there. But I wasn’t upset about it. In fact, if Dredd is at least 50 percent as good as The Raid, I’ll call it a success. Now, I’m only bringing up the Dredd trailer to illustrate a point, which is that almost nothing is totally unique anymore, especially in the realm of action. Plot elements and character archetypes are recycled left and right, it seems, but not all of them are equal. It takes a lot of talent and creativity to take an age-old story and make it seem fresh again.
Take Merantau, for example. Directed by G.H. Evans, it’s a story any martial arts action fan has heard a million times. A wholly good, young man must make a journey to find himself and, in the process, right some grievous wrong in the world. This story doesn’t grapple with moral gray areas; it doesn’t portray a flawed hero; it doesn’t lead you down one narrative path only to surprise you with a twist ending. It’s as straightforward as can be, but when done right, the fact that the protagonist is, essentially, a walking ideal doesn’t matter one bit. All that matters is how effective the film is at speaking to the noble intentions I’m assuming is a part of everyone. Merantau is, without a doubt, one of those able-bodied films, and I have no problem throwing it up there with the best of the genre.
Speaking of the best, Rumble in the Bronx and Ong Bak instantly come to mind when I think about Merantau. The main characters all share that noble trait I mentioned before, and they all get themselves caught up in something bigger than they had ever imagined. But where the story of Ong Bak sees its protagonist chasing after a specific item that was stolen from him, Merantau instead focuses on broader themes of personal journey and sacrificing yourself for others. Keung, Jackie Chan’s character in Rumble, and Yuda, the main character in Merantau, are more alike in that regard. They both have only a vague goal of doing good in mind, and the craziness is a by-product of that mindset. They’re out of their element and not used to how corrupt life can be in a more urban setting.
Another aspect of the story I really appreciate is how Yuda’s mother frames his journey toward becoming a man. She tells him that, whether or not they have the right to, their culture expects young men to go through a period of self-discovery away from family and friends . She believes her son is already a good person, but nevertheless, he must venture out into the unknown. His brother did it, and in hindsight, he didn’t have to, either. But he came back and all was well. What I admire the most here is the film’s willingness to accept that not every cultural tradition is beneficial to everyone. I suppose, though, if Yuda thought merantau (their term for the journey) was a bunch of garbage, he would be the exact kind of person who would learn something from the ordeal.
Aside from its themes, the acting in Merantau is another one of its strengths. Iko Uwais plays Yuda with the requisite innocence required of the role, but acting seems to come more natural to him than it does Tony Jaa or Jackie Chan. Chan always plays a version of himself, and when he steps out of that comfort zone, it’s pretty obvious. I’ve only seen Uwais in two films – this one and The Raid – but I’m betting on him becoming a big star relatively soon. Uwais, however, isn’t the only bright spot in the acting department. In most of these kinds of films, there’s going to be a prominent female character, and she’s going to be obnoxious as hell. I’m talking I-just-want-to-punch-her-in-the-face annoying. Not so with Merantau. Sisca Jessica plays the female lead just about as sympathetically as possible. She goes through a lot of trauma during the film, but she’s never over-the-top or grating. I wish more martial arts films of this ilk would take note and at least attempt to have some quality in the overall acting (I’m looking at you, The Protector. Good lord.).
I’m not really sure if this observation would hold up to any scrutiny, but it seems like quite the number of villains in Jackie Chan movies are European white guys who rely on their leg strength a lot. Is that true, or is it just me? In any case, Merantau finds some more European white guys to serve as the main nemeses. They’re filthy drug-and-sex dealers, but in-between bouts of debauchery and line-sniffing, they somehow learned a shit-load of martial arts. Again, that’s just how it goes in these kinds of films, and, again, Merantau does it better than most others. In their first confrontation with Yuda, one of them gets glass shattered over his entire face. What does he do? Take the shards out? Pff. He stands there, bleeding profusely while screaming at his lackeys to do something useful. That’s pretty frightening. In another scene, the same guy rapes a girl, and when he’s done, he sits on the bed and says something to the effect of “Well, life isn’t fair.” At least he’s not a liar. Then, there’s the fight scene toward the end with Yuda which reminds me of a more realistic version of some of the end fights in Who Am I? or Legend of Drunken Master.
Merantau doesn’t reinvent any wheels, but I hope I’ve shown that it doesn’t have to. Evans knows how to frame brutal fights, and his dedication to crafting a believable story around the action is what sets this one apart for me. There’s no slapsticky humor, no grating sidekicks, and no pulled punches (especially toward the end). That’s all I ask for in my action flicks: something more to care about once the fists stop flying.