Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Merantau Warrior

I was initially intrigued with Merantau Warrior (2009) for two reasons, namely 1) it's an Indonesian film (I don't get to see too many of those), and 2) it features the indigenous Sumatran fighting style known as silat. Silat is amazing to watch, one of the more dance-like of Asian martial arts incorporating lightening-quick, open-handed striking actions and body movements inspired by jungle animals. So far as my prerequisites were concerned, Merantau Warrior acquitted itself admirably: It presents gorgeous images of Indonesia and is an excellent showcase for silat. However, there are some problems ...

The sophomore effort of Welsh writer/director/producer Gareth Evans, the film features good production values and some stunning images of the natural beauty of the countryside. The story is fairly bare-bones: A young man (Iko Uwais) from a provincial village sets out on his merantau, a kind of walkabout or vision quest. In this case, his journey from home involves a bus trip to Jakarta where he soon finds himself protecting a pretty girl and an adorable waif from sleazy gangsters. Cue ever-escalating fight sequences.

The problem with Merantau Warrior is a common one in the martial arts genre: The fights are wild, but in between there's not much going on. The narrative pace slows to a crawl, the characters are ill-defined (and thus hard to care about), and the acting isn't great. Normally, this wouldn't be quite so damning, but this being Southeast Asia, any fan of martial arts movies will instantly be reminded of a little film called Ong Bak (2003) and a fella named Tony Jaa. The publicity materials for Merantau Warrior even reference Ong Bak, an unwise comparison. Perhaps if Ong Bak's director Prachya Pinkaew had helmed the picture ... Tony Jaa found out how much he needed Pinkaew when he decided to direct Ong Bak 2 (a film far more stultifying, by the way, than Merantau Warrior).

But perhaps I'm being too tough on this film. After all, I can think of a couple of Bruce Lee pictures that were fairly snoozable between the ass-kicking bits. I'm sure the target audience for Merantau Warrior will be less nit-picky and just enjoy the many exciting action sequences (featuring what looked to me like some very real injuries). So come for the fights and stay for the ... fights. As silat movies go, I've never seen better.


Phantom of Pulp said...

I saw this, too, and agree with your criticism.

I don't know why these guys don't work with decent writers. They don't value a script. They think it's all about the fighting.

Fighting is primary, of course, but a decent script and suspenseful plot makes everything THAT much more enjoyable.

Patrick Galloway said...

Couldn't agree more, Phantom. Good script and character development are paramount. Thanks for the feedback.