by Jason Suzuki
Merantau, released back in 2009, was an exciting debut for both its writer/director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwais. While Evans has grown as a action stylist, Uwais has not necesarilly been given many roles that show off all the talents he brought to that debut film. Sure, with each passing Raid film he establishes himself as Indonesia's answer to any other East Asian country's martial arts superstar (he even has a cameo in the last Star Wars film!), but what was so spectacular about the Merantau was the human element to the film. It did not shy away from the drama surrounding the fight set pieces and Uwais more than met that challenge giving a surprisingly good performance given how usually the stunt abilities come first priority in films like these. So as the Raid movies delivered non-stop action in the first one and overlong mobster politics in the second, we finally are given another movie that gives Uwais a meatier role to push his acting and is also a lot of brutal fun.
Not to be confused with the 2011 Pen-Ek Ratanaruang film, the gunshot to the head Iko takes in the Mo Brothers' film gives him amnesia rather than upside down sight. Bestowed the name Ishmael by the Moby Dick reading doctor Ailin (Chelsea Islan), he is not given much time to acclimate himself back to the world of the conscious as those who put the bullet back in his head are making waves and have started a violent search for him.
Sunny Pang is the big bad Lee whose prison escape sets the violent standard for the movie where bullets don't just graze but splatter and punches deliver gushes of blood before bruises are able to form. He kidnaps children and puts them through the ringer as he raises them. Coming out on the other side are killing machines with Stockholm syndrome aiding in Lee's kidnappings and drug dealings. One of his main sidekicks is played by Hammer Girl herself Julie Estelle who finally gets to be more than just cosplay fodder here.
Despite the clean slate his amnesia has afforded him, fight after fight Ishmael realizes his ability for taking out his opponents in graphic ways and finds that he might not have been such a good guy and that he might not be able to escape his past as he would hope. It's a strong dilemma to be in and Uwais is able to deliver a nuanced performance, him and the Mo brothers even reaching so high as to attempt character development in the midst of its action set pieces, mainly the showdown between Uwais and Estelle.
The drama and character interactions are so strong that once the doc gets kidnapped by Lee, and the film goes from one fight to the next, it starts to drag on no matter how creative and well-choreographed these scenes are (call it the Scott Pilgrim effect). The use of environmental and increasing injury add to how these fights are constantly changing so the weariness of the marathon of duels is minimal to be fair to the film. If you're looking for something more brutal than The Raid and just as heartfelt as Merantau, you're best bet is this.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor to Cinema Adrift.