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(Gareth Evans, 2009)

I enjoyed The Raid a lot, but its sequel was a kinetic, ass-kicking masterpiece that left me panting for more and kick-started my interest in martial-arts films. Merantau is basically The Raid-lite: same director, same leading man, same fighting style. Iko Uwais isn't playing Rama from The Raid, but it's still easy to view Merantau as a spiritual prequel. The thin story takes awhile to develop. A young martial-arts expert moves from the village to the city, sees corruption, develops a relationship with a young woman and her little brother, incurs the wrath of a crime boss, then proceeds to beat the living hell out of countless goons. It's basically a live-action version of the side-scrolling beat-'em-ups I used to play on Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis. I mean that as a good thing.

The fight choreography isn't as jaw-dropping as it would become in The Raid and The Raid 2, but the fight scenes are still fantastic -- especially a showdown in an elevator involving Yayan Ruhian (another familiar face from The Raid movies) and a climactic battle in a shipping dock that's drenched in reds so heavy it would give Nicolas Winding Refn a hard-on. Unfortunately, there are also plenty of flaws. Some of the wire work is too noticeable. The extreme juxtaposition between the protagonist's idyllic village and the corrupt city is cartoonishly extreme. The bookends are overly sentimental.

In The Raid 2, before all hell would break loose, director Gareth Edwards would slow things down, allowing the tension to swell through pregnant pauses. Each fight was like watching an action movie version of a spaghetti western duel. That tactic is mostly absent in Merantau, so fight scenes don't have that extra oomph. Still, this is an exciting martial-arts film and highly recommended for fans of The Raid and The Raid 2. Just temper expectations.