In my review of John Wick III, I brought up several important recent martial arts and action films from Asia.
Among those mentioned was The Raid—a duology of movies that may be the Enter the Dragon or Police Story of our generation (in other words, extremely important to the development of the marital arts genre).
As we approach the tenth anniversary of Merantau—the small movie that preceded The Raid and cemented the relationship between an unknown martial artist and an unknown director—I’d like to take you on a journey to Indonesia and into the violent world of actor Iko Uwais and director Gareth Evans.
Gareth Evans is a Welsh director who had an interest in Asian films (his first short was a samurai feature) and horror movies. Three years after graduating college he would make his first full-length film, Footsteps (2006). But it was his next film project that would cement his fate.
Evans was hired to work on a documentary series about the Indonesian martial art silat. At the time of making the documentary silat was an unknown martial art. The history of silat goes back nearly 1500 years and the style developed as more Western imperialist interests eyed Indonesia. An important part of the culture and history of the island nation, Evans fell in love.
In making the documentary Evans would meet a charismatic and charming young practitioner of silat named Iko Uwais. Working for a telecom company and practicing silat after work, Uwais was a major part of the documentary. Uwais and Evans had immediately hit it off, and the two decided to work together on a film project once the documentary was complete.
2009’s Merantau takes much of its inspiration from 2003’s Ong Bak (which, coincidentally, introduced Thai style martial arts to the mainstream Asian action scene and propelled Tony Jaa to stardom).
A young man from a small farming village is sent to the city of Jakarta to test his manhood in a trial called merantau. Attempting to survive in the ruthless city, he stumbles into a human trafficking ring, becomes attached to a dancer being mistreated by her pimp, and is forced to use his years of martial arts training to defeat an army of thugs to save the girl.
Merantau has all the necessary ingredients. Iko Uwais is a joy to watch with a charm about him that doesn’t come from being humorous as much as relatability. As a scared young man thrust into an unforgiving world, he manages to balance his vulnerability with an inner sense of justice that propels him to kicking and punching people into the hospital. Sisca Jessica as an exploited dancer trying to make money to help her little brother survive brings more emotional levity and sincerity to a movie that knows the best violence comes with emotional baggage attached.
The action itself is pretty good and if you haven’t seen The Raid and been spoiled by the violence there, I’m sure Merantau’s will be impressive. It’s well choreographed and quick but lacks some of the brutality of what was to come.
Evans direction is still coming into its own as well. There are several sequences and camera movements fans of the director will instantly recognize and that is compounded with some shaky cam that doesn’t get in the way but is still noticeable. There’s also some heavy-handed editing in the final fight sequence—several minor issues that Evans irons out with each successive movie.
Merantau won praise in martial arts film circles and Evans was already at work on his next project with Uwais by the time it hit theaters.
The two men, at around age thirty, were about to cement themselves in the action movie history books.
The Raid released in 2011 and follows Rama (played by Uwais), a member of a SWAT team sent to a giant apartment complex. The entire building is a den for criminals, drug-makers, and kingpins. It’s run like a prison and the moment the SWAT team gets inside and starts arresting people, the building goes on lockdown and what starts a police thriller becomes a survival horror movie. Rama is alone and afraid, fighting against dozens of men much better armed than himself and watching his friends die around him.
The Raid is ninety minutes of pure unadulterated violence. It’s a simple story that works as the vehicle for edge-of-your-seat thrills. After only one film together you can see the improvement of Evans and Uwais with better direction, faster martial arts, and a commitment to being as simple and raw as possible; none of the slower emotional moments that made Merantau occasionally sloggy. The end fight where Uwais and his brother take on the indomitable Mad Dog is among the best sequences in martial arts history.
The Raid stood as a major influence Asian action films and even served as the basis for the underappreciated Dredd. But Uwais and Evans had one more surprise for action fans…arguably the greatest martial arts film of all time.
Let’s talk about The Raid 2.
While the first film was gritty and had the look of a hard-R low budget film, The Raid 2 (2014) is among the best directed and most beautiful action films I’ve ever seen. From an opening wide angle shot of a car driving through a field you can see the influence of classic filmmaking a la Cecil B. DeMille. Later, there is a restaurant where the scarlet and white motif is an obvious color choice meant to tickle the viewers sense of aesthetic. A final fight sequence takes place in a blindingly white kitchen with industrial grey appliances not only to make the blood more pronounced once it flies but also to call the viewer’s attention toward the fight itself and not the surroundings.
I could go on for hours about the small things Evans does with The Raid 2. Touches that you would expect from a arthouse film but never from a martial arts picture.
The main gripe people have with The Raid 2 is that going from the nonstop action of the first to a much longer drama Jakartan gang politics alienates the people who watched The Raid solely for the action. The Raid 2 is harder to approach than the first. It has a slow opening, it focuses much more on a variety of side characters than the hero, and the action is well spaced out. Only in the last half hour does the movie let loose with a gauntlet of inventive violence.
One of the best shot car chases ever (which was only able to be shot so well because the cameramen disguised themselves as passenger-side car seats) opens a third act that never lets up. Uwais battles through twenty-some goons, fights fan favorite characters Baseball Bat Boy and Hammer Girl, and then engages in a fight with Cecep Arif Rahman; my personal pick for the single greatest one-on-one fight in martial arts history. I remember my first time seeing the scene in theaters and being covered in goosebumps. I’ve watched The Raid 2 probably ten times since then and I still get goosebumps.
If you don’t get anything else from this article, at least take away that you should watch The Raid 2.
Iko Uwais and Gareth Evans haven’t collaborated since 2014 but you may have seen them attached to other projects. Evans directed the Netflix exclusive The Apostle, an interesting old-school horror flick well worth a watch. He’s also been confirmed as the director of the future Deathstroke movie, (which was hinted at in the end credits of Justice League).
Meanwhile Uwais has popped up in Star Wars Episode VII, took top billing alongside Mark Wahlberg in the forgettable Mile 22, and will play the villain in Disney’s upcoming R-rated comedy Stuber. You can also see him in the Netflix exclusive The Nights Comes For Us, which is an Indonesian martial arts film that makes up for a lack of technical prowess in the hand-to-hand combat with the most gratuitously disgusting and over-the-top gore you’ll see in a non-horror movie.
Two men from humble beginnings meet by a turn of fate and immortalize themselves. I talk about these two not only because The Raid films are among my favorite movies ever but because they accomplished the dream of any amateur filmmaker or actor and did it in their early 30’s. In an industry that is dominated by the rich and the privileged, to know that independent filmmakers and guys working at telecom companies can do amazing things—to hear the story of Iko Uwais and Gareth Evans—it’s truly inspirational.