Iko Uwais Is the Modern Face of Indonesian Martial Arts Cinema

Iko Uwais is transforming the martial arts action drama through ultraviolent, well edited action.
Iko Raid Redemption
By  · Published on August 21st, 2018

Iko Uwais is bringing a new meaning to the word violence.

Martial arts films are a cinematic staple. Who doesn’t love to watch grown adults beat up on each other for two hours? The genre first surged in the 1970s, and thankfully, we’ve seen how far fight choreography has come since then. From the legendary yet slightly awkward looking films of Bruce Lee to hyper-edited American copycat films to Donnie Yen’s superb action choreography, the films have evolved greatly over the years.

Stars like Jet Li, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, and Yen have all helped perpetuate the American love for Hong Kong, kung-fu cinema. Films like Hero, Rumble in the Bronx, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and Ip Man have all set the standard for modern martial arts films and have all done well with American audiences. They feature well-choreographed fights, and they feed into a formula that has worked very well for martial arts films in satisfying our need to watch people hit each other.

Enter Indonesian actor Iko Uwais. Uwais is helping to usher in a modern evolution to martial arts films with hyper-violent, long takes of brutal action sequences. After captivating audiences with The Raid and The Raid 2, we all wanted more Uwais and more immaculately choreographed action films. It looks like that’s what we’re going to get. Most recently, he co-starred in the fourth Peter Berg/Mark Wahlberg thriller Mile 22 as a brutal, bad-guy killing cop, acting as the only enjoyable moment of the film. Furthermore, he will co-star in the Kumail Nanjiani led Stuber, the action-star packed Triple Threat, and as Variety reports, he is going to helm his own Netflix series Wu Assassins. The future is bright for Uwais as he’s been slowly creeping his way deeper into Hollywood.

This Den of Geek Q&A details Uwais’ unusual path to action-stardom. He never went to drama school. Instead, he spent his time mastering the Indonesian martial art pencak silat while selling phones for a living. One day, while practicing, Uwais was approached by a white, British filmmaker named Gareth Evans who was filming a documentary about silat. Fascinated by Uwais’ mastery of silat and natural on-screen charisma, Evans sought Uwais to create action films that celebrate Indonesia’s historical martial art. The rest is history.

Evans and Uwais first created Merantau in 2009. For the Minangkabau people in West Sumatra, Indonesia, merantau is a rite of passage –– a time for a man to leave home in order to experience life, find education, or accumulate wealth. As Uwais’ character, Yuda, embarks on his merantau to teach children silat, he accidentally finds himself uncovering a major sex-trafficking ring deep in the nation’s capital. What results is an incredibly choreographed, breathtaking action film that brilliantly displays the complexities of silat through brutal, calculated fight scenes. This film is a great first showing of what Uwais and Evans bring to the action genre and is a great showing of how deadly silat is.

The Raid and The Raid 2 are probably most Americans’ first exposure to Uwais and silat. Audiences everywhere were excited to witness action that was comprehensive and not edited all to hell. In the Raid films, you can actually see what’s happening on screen. Many modern action films like the Bourne or Marvel films are often hyper-edited, resulting in nauseating, difficult-to-watch action sequences. The Raid films are action-packed and showcase exactly what masters of silat can do, resulting in violently entertaining action. We need more action like this. We need more directors like Evans and more choreographers like Uwais. He also stars in — and headlined fight choreography — for 2016’s Headshot, and while Evans is replaced in the director’s chair by Kimo Stamboel & Timo Tjahjanto the action is still brutal and blistering.

So how is Uwais evolving the martial arts genre? Easy, through silat and smart filmmaking. Silat is a truly dangerous martial art. It’s different than kung-fu or karate. While different martial arts may be about respect and dancing with your opponent, silat was designed specifically to maim or kill your enemy in just a few moves. How quickly can you defeat your opponent? If someone throws a right cross at you, the idea is that you break their arm swiftly, then proceed to incapacitate them in another way. It’s truly deadly, and silat’s savage nature on screen feeds our hunger for ultraviolent catharsis.

Moreover, as a choreographer, Uwais is setting the bar high for martial arts films. In order to compete, filmmakers will have to match Uwais’ talents with equally impressive action sequences and smart cinematography and editing. It’s clear that inferior action is boring and infuriating, so hopefully, Uwais will inspire more filmmakers to evolve and create comprehensive action films.

We’re certainly excited for more silat-action movies to grace the silver screen. It’s the perfect martial art for cinema. It’s violent and it scratches a primordial itch that many of us have. Furthermore, Uwais, as a master silat practitioner and increasingly skilled actor, is the perfect vehicle to bring us better action films. As Uwais continues to find his place in Hollywood and filmmakers continue to film action in comprehensive, innovative ways, we can expect the action genre to keep on improving.

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Lover of coffee, the emdash, and General Hux. Journalism student at Biola University in Los Angeles.