Director Gareth Evans' new film The Raid is currently taking the geek world by storm, inspiring memes and all that stuff. My review for that is still forthcoming, but while you wait, hey, have you seen his previous film, Merantau?
While The Raid is wall to wall action, Merantau takes a more character and plot oriented approach. It is the story of Yuda (The Raid badass Iko Uwais), a young Indonesian man on his way to Jakarta to follow his dream of becoming a teacher of a martial art called Silat. Things aren't easy for him in Jakarta, he winds up homeless, sleeping in a large pipe at a construction site.
Fate intervenes when a boy steals Yuda's wallet and he chases him into an alley, where he finds Astri, the boy's sister, being roughed up by her boss. Yuda beats the guy up and saves her, though he cost her her job in the process. Unfortunately, this raises the ire of Astri's boss, and in turn, his boss, a European gangster of some kind. In order to get Astri and her brother out of trouble, Yuda must now face off against the Eurogangster and his men on his own.
The martial arts in Merantau are pretty damn great. I like how Gareth Evans directs the action sequences. There isn't a great deal of cutting, and he places the cameras in places where you can easily follow what is happening. It's refreshing to see action like this, since so many Hollywood action movies are a jumble of quick cutting and tight close-ups.
The story, while fairly standard for a Martial Arts movie, is effective, and serves its purpose as a setup for a ton of beatdowns, while still giving us likeable characters that we can root for. Iko Uwais is easy to like as a hero. At the start, he comes across as young, fresh-faced and open to the world. When he's given something to fight for, you're right there with him and want to see him win.
There are certain leaps a viewer must take and facts we must accept when watching a martial arts movie like Merantau. One is that nobody ever seems to get tired during a fight. Iko Uwais will finish a giant showdown and run at top speed into the next without ever even stopping for a quick breather. Another is that everybody knows martial arts too. Where's the fun in beating up a bunch of gangsters if they can't put up a fight? Heck, even the European guys seem to be masters at some fighting style or another. I don't mind taking these leaps. They're pretty silly when you stop and think about it, but they're all part of the fun.
So if you liked The Raid, will you like Merantau? I would have to say, yes, I think you will. It offers a lot of action, and a lot more in terms of character and story on top of that. It's much less of a ride than The Raid is, but it makes up for that fact in other ways. Some people, say, Roger Ebert, for example, might argue that Merantau is actually the better movie of the two. It all depends on what you're looking for, really.