Martial artists turning their craft into enduring acting careers is by no means a new concept – Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen being perhaps the most famous names to pervade western cinema. But they arose in a time where Hollywood treated Asian roles and actors as the “other”, and reinforced certain stereotypes to an impressionable audience. Cautionary tales abound Asian actors who have been relegated to second-tier roles, or have had their own stories told by a Caucasian actor. Aloha, The Great Wall, Ghost in the Shell – lukewarm reviews aside, these titles will forever be marred by their decisions to whitewash Asian roles.

In 2016, the viral campaign #StarringJohnCho superimposed the actor onto movie posters to show what it would look like if Hollywood cast an Asian-American in a lead role. Last year, Kal Penn tweeted photos of his old audition scripts casting “Ghandi lookalikes” and snake charmers, and recalled producers who wanted “authentic” (Apu-like) Indian accents. In the Master of None episode “Indians on TV”, Aziz Ansari portrayed his real-life experiences of being typecast: When Dev auditions for an “Unnamed Cab Driver” role, he is turned down for refusing to do “the” accent.

It’s been a long, whitewashed and pigeonholed road to progress, but in 2018, audiences’ demands for diversity and representation are finally being met. This year, John Cho stars as the lead in the psychological thriller Searching, Henry Golding and Constance Wu head an all-Asian cast in Crazy Rich Asians, and Iko Uwais brings much-needed nuance to martial arts in Mile 22.

At age 10, Uwais began learning pencak silat from his grandfather, the master and founder of a silat school in Jakarta. Pencak silat is an umbrella term for the hundreds of diverse styles of Indonesian martial arts. A full-body fighting form, silat artists strike, grapple, throw, and use weaponry to best their opponent. Martial arts researcher Donn F. Draeger once described it as a “beauty of action, fluidity, and quickness that can appear to be a dancelike rhythm”. It’s no wonder then, that Welsh director Gareth Evans was determined to capture this art on film. A relatively green filmmaker and avid fan of Asian cinema, Evans and his wife Maya relocated to Jakarta in 2007 to be closer to the action. He met a young Uwais whilst filming a cultural documentary on silat, and was enamoured by his cinematic qualities; telling Maya, “We’ve got to use him for something!”

They would collaborate again on 2009’s Merentau, but it was 2011’s The Raid that enthralled an international audience, and introduced Uwais and his pencak silat to the world.

Western action films don’t even come close. The Raid’s plot is basic, resolute, and could be summarized as a loading screen paragraph:

“Your police squad is about to raid an apartment block owned by a dangerous drug lord. Many of its seedy inhabitants have been granted rooms in return for protection. You must go through them and others before you can face Tama Riyadi, the mob boss…”

That’s literally it. Proceed up the many levels – killing all in your path – in order to fight the final boss. Keep an eye on that HP, though. Unlike the video game format that’s inspired this mission, you can’t respawn.

Though scant on plot and dialogue, The Raid over-delivers its violence and action. One viewer’s comment put it best: “This movie was just disgusting. I couldn’t believe how disturbing and grotesque the violence was. I kept cringing throughout the entire thing. It was fucking amazing.”

The crew tried to avoid contact hits to the face or head, but all the body hits were real. Fighters and stuntmen bore the full brunt of blows, leaving Evans nothing left to conceal. The action is cut for pacing and scope, but framed in medium and full shots to show every elongated movement, weapon that’s knocked away and reclaimed, and battered fighter writhing in the shadows.

The Raid heralded a new archetype for action films, with Iko Uwais a new archetype for martial arts actors. His portrayal of Rama, a rookie cop, is raw animosity tinged with vulnerability: he’s young, new to the force, and has a pregnant wife at home. But there’s only one way he can return to her, and it involves maiming an apartment block’s worth of evil henchmen. A master of silat, Uwais choreographed the fight scenes and performed his own stunts. Though brutal in its application, silat at his hands embodies the prophesized beautiful and dancelike qualities.

Iko Uwais and director Peter Berg on set of Mile 22
Image via Roadshow Films Australia

Upon seeing The Raid, Mile 22 director Peter Berg was mesmerized by “the soul, texture, emotion and physical brutality” of Uwais’ performance. He quickly cast him as Li Noor, an intelligence asset who holds life-threatening information. James Silva (Mark Wahlberg), leader of Overwatch, a CIA covert operation, is tasked with transporting Noor through 22 miles of enemy territory.

The film is loosely based on the exploits of Ground Branch, a real-life CIA covert task force. This isn’t the military that leaves no man behind. In Ground Branch and Overwatch, the mission comes first, and any man left behind is left for dead.

This shouldn’t bode well for Li Noor – except that he’s played by Iko Uwais. While it is Silva’s responsibility to get him to safety, let’s be real: Noor can, and does, hold his own. Just look at the trailer: Noor, with one hand cuffed to a hospital bed, faces two attackers. Swerving deftly from their blades, he uses his remaining limbs (and medical equipment within reach) to deliver a flurry of lethal blows.

Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg have produced three action films together, all with an emphasis on team-based survival. Mile 22, their fourth collaboration, has all the hallmarks of an American blockbuster: a nuclear threat, a covert ops team, an untold arsenal – and a sequel already in the works. The point of difference here is Iko Uwais.

Berg was heavily inspired by The Raid and credits Uwais as the catalyst for wanting to make this film. Just as Gareth Evans vowed to work with Uwais having seen him perform silat, Berg was determined to work with him after watching the subsequent film. As with his other action roles, Uwais also choreographed the fight scenes in Mile 22. In a recent interview, he spoke of the joy in combining his beloved silat with Hollywood-style production. Uwais led the team of American choreographers, with Berg describing a cohesive unit that had the utmost respect for his vision.

As for his role, Li Noor is a catalyst character that drives the plot rather than servicing it. As the sole bearer of vital information, he is able to leverage his safety and assert his worth. He is not presented as a tech nerd, or medical assistant, nor is he emasculated in any way. Dexterous both in words and in combat, he is a kinetic force to be reckoned with – and just so happens to be Asian.

Mile 22 is in cinemas August 30.