With Tony Jaa having deserted moviemaking for the monastery, the title of top international action star is left vacant and up for grabs. Would-be successors have applied en masse, from English acroartist Scott Adkins to fellow Thai national Jeeja Yanin, and with the advent of the New Year, Indonesian martial artist/soccer player Iko Uwais throws his name into the hat with a most promising entry in "Merantau". Capable of doing for the Indonesian film industry what Ong-Bak did for Thailand, it's an extremely impressive audition tape with a vaguely stripped-down feel and occasionally light on the plot - definitely not the best all-around martial arts film of the last few years but more than serviceable in supplying the thrills. If nothing else, it promises a lot for both the star and director (Gareth Evans, Footsteps) should they be presented with a bigger budget. Those wary of taking a step down from the production power of Jaa's work might be leery, but action aficionados in general should be quick to help make this one into a cult classic.
The story: departing his peaceful village for his rite of passage, young silat practitioner Yuda (Uwais) travels to Jakarta, where he finds no work but a sister & brother pair of abandoned street children in need of his help (Sisca Jessica and Yusuf Aulia). Protecting them from the control of a sadistic French businessman (Mads Koudal, Six Reasons Why), Yuda needs to become the hero he never knew he was to take on an entire underground organization upholding a sex slavery circuit.
The plot is definitely modeled after "Ong Bak" and sadly serves as the major drawback of the movie. There's a good sense of righteous indignation with which Yuda beats down the sex traffickers, but the story itself is low on twists; there are a few inspired aspects concerning the relationships between the villains, but by large, there's nothing beyond the mandatory. The film's finale is built up throughout the last 40 minutes, and even though it supplies the same stellar action as the rest of the movie, the thread is worn thin even before the final battle takes place because the three before it felt like they could've been the last, as well. Considering that much of the cast is mostly composed of performers with little to no film experience (with the exception of Mads Koudal and Christine Hakim - bit player in Eat Pray Love - as Yuda's mother), acting is pretty decent and most slip-ups are due to the weakness of the script.
Of course, it's the action you're going to be watching this for, and I'm happy to say that it is both good and abundant. Though he'll occasionally borrow a kick or elbow strike from Jaa, Iko Uwais represents his home-learned style of pentjak silat with pride and authenticity. Throughout the course of the movie, he runs through an encyclopedia of strikes, holds and takedowns, counters and reversals, and weapons-handling that effectively defines the style as something rarely seen in movies (see Bounty Tracker for a notable exception). Despite never having made a martial arts feature before, director Evans is more than competent in shooting the fight scenes - utilizing long, uninterrupted shots with unfixed cameras and just letting Iko go nuts with his abilities in general. Some stuntwork is present - including an instance of a villain being struck in midair and falling over ten feet straight onto his back - but unlike in most fighting movies nowadays, it doesn't take precedence: it's all about the martial arts and dangit if they're not worth the emphasis.
The production is good (the fight scenes seem a bit stripped but nevertheless clean) with a decent scope, but the world seems oddly underinhabited, especially when it comes to the big trafficking operation. "Merantau" seems to take place in a world of its own, but luckily it's a world worth revisiting - one that introduces us to a very promising new star who deserves a bright future. Buy it if you appreciate solid physical action and it might just become a favorite.