Just as bad business and worse storytelling conspire to rob us of the physical glory that is Tony Jaa, in steps Indonesia's Iko Uwais, bringing the martial art of silat to the big screen in a big way with Merantau.
Yuda (Uwais) leaves his small farming village on "merantau," a rite of passage meant to demonstrate a young man's independence from his family. However, life is tough once he arrives in Jakarta, and tougher still once he steps in to help Astri (Sisca Jessica) as she's bullied by first her boss, then the head of a European human trafficking ring (Mads Koudal).
As written, directed and edited by Gareth Evans, Merantau is very much reminiscent of last year's Chocolate in its ungainly balance of the sentimental with the kick-ass. That isn't to say that every movie featuring martial arts automatically has to be an action film, but the dramatic beats here are all well-worn ones, what with the damsel in distress and her little brother, the orphan who needs protection. Many single shots feel individually overextended -- six seconds on a crying kid when two seconds will tug the heartstrings all the same -- and it begins to add up, especially during and after the climax.
When the action does flare up, though, Evans wisely lets Uwais and company do their own thing, favoring longer takes that emphasize the grace and skill of the movements on display, as well as practical stunts that lend their own level of impact. (That pole shot that caps off the trailer -- embedded below -- was reportedly shot seventeen times.) Our hero flies across rooftops, fights within elevators and dispatches pursuing motorcycles with applause-worthy ease, with everything grounded within the realm of plausibility and that much more fun for it.
For his acting debut, Uwais rises to the emotional and physical demands with equal force; it's really more a matter of Evans placing too much emphasis on the former when he tends to do so right by the latter. On the flip side, Danish actor Koudal is a bit too overly manic as the main villain, though his own fighting skills in the end are nothing to scoff at. (Right-hand man/villain's brother Laurent Buson similarly gets to kick ass between sneers.) Jessica is as cute and imperiled a love interest as they come, and as her scrappy brother, Yusuf Aulia does the comedy-and-concern number that all kid actors in these films seem to be saddled with.
As it so happens, the international cut, as shown at Fantastic Fest, runs nearly a half hour shorter than the original version, with more family melodrama being excised than anything. Even in this cut, it's clear that Merantau means well, but it only works well once it gets mean.