Saturday, 19 April 2014
Merantau shares the same basic creative impetus as The Raid films. Gareth Evans is attempting to legitimise the fight film by actively addressing the kind of pat, disinterested criticism that martial arts films tend to attract - one dimensional characters, dramatic beats given short shrift, etc. The problem with this kind of approach is that it might not even be necessary. Martial arts films have their own distinct shape developed through decades of reiteration.
A puny dramatic structure can be forgiven because it's not what's attracting us to the film. Martial arts is exploitation cinema, we come to see expert practitioners mime putting each other in comas. Stray too far from this and you have to start making time for other recognisable genre beats, further mutating the final film. Similarly, a star like Iko Uwais doesn't need to be a completely engaging emotional presence. Spending more time with him doesn't deepen our relationship with him. If anything it can sabotage it by exposing his limitations.
Gareth Evans' efforts to justify Merantau are laudable but counter-productive. He spends so much time trying to weave pathos into a proportional, Hollywood style frame that the film ends up lopsided. Merantau doesn't necessarily even need less scenes, it'd just flow better if the ones it had were shorter and more concise. Still, make it through the glacial first hour and you'll be rewarded with forty minutes of exceptionally well-shot and choreographed dust-ups. These delights include Iko Uwais and Yayan Ruhian locking horns in a lift, as well as an anime inflected finale in which a flagging Iko appears to leach fighting energy from a throng of imprisoned sex slaves to vanquish his human trafficking foe.