Pic introduces a potential star in Iko Uwais, but only fitfully works as an action movie.

Announcing itself as the first Indonesian martial-artser in 15 years, “Merantau” introduces a potential star in 26-year-old Iko Uwais, but only fitfully works as an action movie. A kind of softer, more metrosexual version of Thailand’s Tony Jaa, Uwais has the moves and looks to carve a career beyond the archipelago, but Welsh-born writer-director G.H. Evans can’t make up his mind whether he’s making a respectful study of Indonesian culture or a trail-blazing chopsocky. Not kinetic enough to appeal to the usual action outlets, this ranks as an interesting but only half-formed experiment.

In its original, extremely plodding 137-minute version, the film world-preemed as the closer at South Korea’s PiFan fest in July and subsequently did OK on release in Indonesia in early August. Version reviewed here is Evans’ 111-minute international cut (for all markets outside Indonesia), which has since played some other fantasy fests. Pic still needs another 15 minutes taken out to stand a real chance in offshore markets.

In short order, Yuda finds himself homeless in the big city and rescuing young bar dancer Astri (cute Sisca Jessica) from her boss, Johni (Alex Abbad). Yuda takes her and her pickpocket baby brother, Adit (Yusuf Aulia), under his wing, and when Johni kidnaps Astri to service a psycho Western client, Ratger (Mads Koudal), Yuda springs into full action-hero mode.

Apart from a few brief demos, the first full-fledged action setpiece comes an hour into the movie — 90 minutes in the leisurely domestic version — and it’s a corker of a rooftop/scaffolding chase that finally, but only briefly, sets the pic alight. Subsequent 50 minutes feature an exciting mano a mano in an elevator, and an OK docklands finale with Ratger and his brother (martial artist Laurent Buson), but that’s about it.

For a journey that’s announced as “the ultimate test of the physical and spiritual,” there’s not enough backgrounding of Yuda or sustained physical oomph to fulfill the pic’s genre remit. Finale at least manages to spring one major surprise, which returns the pic briefly to Yuda’s village.

Danish thesp Koudal, who was in Evans’ stygian low-budget debut, “Footsteps,” set in the world of snuff filmmaking, is good as the seriously nasty villain. But the most interesting character in terms of moral conflict is Ruhian’s Eric, who in the international cut has been robbed of a gritty fight scene that properly set up his character.

Tech package, sourced on P2 DV, is good-looking, with clean daytime and moody night work by Yank d.p. Matt Flannery, who also shot “Footsteps.”

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  • Production: A Merantau Films production. (International sales: Golden Network Asia, Hong Kong.) Produced by Ario Sagantoro. Executive producer, Rangga Maya Barack-Evans. Directed, written by G.H. Evans.
  • Crew: Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Matt Flannery, Dimas Imam Subhono; editor, Evans; music, Fajar Yuskemal Tamin, Aria Prayogi; art director, Tomy D. Setyanto; sound (Dolby Digital), Satrio Budiyono; action director, Evans; martial arts choreographers, Edwel Datuk Rajo Gampo Alam, Team Silat Harimau, Iko Uwais; assistant director, Yuhdianto Purwana. Reviewed on DVD, London, Nov. 6, 2009. (Also in PiFan; Fantastic Fest, Austin; Sitges, Hawaii film festivals.) Running time: 111 MIN. Indonesian, English dialogue.
  • With: <B>With:</B> Iko Uwais, Sisca Jessica,Yusuf Aulia, Mads Koudal, Laurent Buson, Alex Abbad, Yayan Ruhian, Donny Alamsyah, Christine Hakim, Ratna Galih, Edwel Datuk Rajo Gampo Alam.
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