Reviewed By brianorndorf
Posted 12/26/10 08:23:25

"These kicks and punches mean something, dammit"
2 stars (Pretty Bad)

Though there’s nothing wrong with the appearance of weighty dramatics during a martial arts extravaganza, the Indonesian film, “Merantau,” lacks a necessary component of entertainment. There’s no sense of life to this bland run of heroes and villains, reducing the bone-breaking encounters scattered throughout to merciful blasts of screen energy that break up the monotonous, poorly acted severity that turns the picture into a still frame. I’m all for the infusion of gravitas and actual stakes, but “Merantau” is a bore, only achieving a few pure moments of bloody-knuckled invention.

Living in a rural Sumatran farming community of peace, Yuda (Iko Uwais) is ready to begin his merantau, a walk of maturity urging the young man to leave his family behind and face the troubles of the real world. Traveling to Jakarta to work as a teacher of Silat, a potent Eastern martial art, Yuda instead finds tremendous difficulty securing employment and a bed, taking to the streets for shelter. Stumbling upon the troubles of a young exotic dancer and her homeless kid brother, Yuda uncovers a wicked human trafficking plot overseen by a merciless baddie named Ratger (Mads Koudal). Looking to protect his battered friends, Yuda springs into action, calling on his Silat training to save Jakarta from evil.

“Merantau” takes itself extremely seriously, underlining Yuda’s spiritual and philanthropic journey as the young man encounters city life, only to find omnipresent sin and a sea of lost souls in place of developing cultural awareness. Director Gareth Evans believes strongly in the significance of the screenplay, making sure to reinforce points of social injustice to better articulate the heroism and sacrifice at hand. The concentration is interesting, but doesn’t propel “Merantau” to any commendable level of soulful satisfaction. In fact, the wildly overplayed divide between good and evil is a source of unintentional laughs, with Ratger emerging from the Hans Gruber School for European Sleazebags, as Evans permits Koudal to chew scenery playing the mastermind of the Jakarta skin trade. The performance is embarrassing, made worse by how much the filmmaker lingers on the actor’s ceaseless indication.

“Merantau” takes a great deal of time to warm up, and once the plot is finally established, Evans is forced to balance the reach of the script with the mouthbreathing requirements of the genre. Yuda’s declaration of war isn’t nearly as energizing as it might’ve been under a different, more focused director, but the physicality of the fights is marvelous. A ballet of dodging and kicking, the Silat scenes are compelling, displaying a blunt force as our hero consistently enters rooms where he’s outnumbered, forced to slap his way to safety. Iko Uwais is an interesting screen presence, and while the dramatics fail him, the actor’s way with a fist is impressive. Evans does his part by changing up environments often, taking Yuda to diverse areas of the city to stage the limb-snapping stuff.

“Merantau” is overlong at 105 minutes, a slog increased exponentially by Evans’s insistence that every dramatic beat remain fixated upon until bled dry of meaning. In dire need of a tighter edit and a few smiles, “Merantau” is a bizarrely lethargic picture, great with violence, but a complete chore to sit through between the punches

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