Yuda (Iko Uwais) is about to embark in his rite of passage, or Merentau, which means leaving his doting mother (Christine Hakim) behind at home and venturing out into the big, wide world. He is planning on heading for Jakarta because he believes he can get somewhere to live there - this has been arranged, or so he thinks - and set up as a tutor of the Indonesian martial art Silat to earn a crust. Before he goes he has a heart to heart with his mother about this new journey, and she tells him that he must do right by his family, but just how he does so nobody could have guessed.
Apparently patterned after those Tony Jaa worldwide fighting hits (the DVD cover in the West called it Merantau Warrior, adding the second word to appeal to that same market), this was a showcase for director Gareth Evans' new discovery Iko Uwais which would prove solid grounding for them to progress to the more acclaimed The Raid: Redemption a couple of years later. Not that their efforts here were negligable in comparison, which was mainly down to the genuinely impressive skills of the star who followed in Jaa's footsteps by bringing a not too well known martial art to the world stage.
Truth be told there were plot problems here, but crucially none of them got in the way of the action, which once the lengthy preamble was dispensed with was plentiful. When our hero gets to Jakarta he finds things not playing out as he would have expected, or wanted for that matter, as the house he was supposed to live in hadn't been built yet, and nobody is in the market for a Silat tutor as most of the established ones do so in their spare time. Based in their home. Which Yuda doesn't currently have. So you can see why, when he is relegated to sleeping in a pile of large pipes on a building site, that he probably needs to rethink his priorities, although returning to his mother is not an option just yet.
Not much of a basis for a martial arts flick, which is why a chance meeting with a nightclub dancer called Astri (Sisca Jessica) spirals Yuda's life off into another direction. He meets her when chasing her young brother Adit (Yusuf Aulia) who happens to have stolen his wallet, and though he gets that back he doesn't receive his reward for chivalry when he saves Astri from her abusive boss (Alex Abbad), actually a pimp with evil plans for her. She is put out at losing her job, and tells Yuda where to go, but fate brings them back together when the pimp's even more deplorable boss, Ratger (Mads Koudal), orders him to find some women for human trafficking purposes.
And Astri fits the bill, so there was a social conscience sneaked into the more run of the mill narrative, but this also had the not so likeable result of having Ratger rape the young woman (offscreen) when Yuda was trying to track her down and save her, which was a major downer for the audience. This might have been included to show to victims of such crimes they are not worthless, for the hero simply doubles his efforts to save her, but even so there was an even bigger downer on the cards for the grand finale. These curious developments could not all be laid at the door of cultural differences, as the director who penned the script was Welsh, but you could argue it offered the proceedings their own particular flavour even if you didn't like them much. Truth was, there was a formula to these things and while they got the combat just right, with Uwais showing incredible mastery of his abilities, everywhere else this was rather awkwardly effective.