Directors: Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto
Cast: Iko Uwais, Chelsea Islan, Sunny Pang, Julie Estelle, Zack Lee, David Hendrawan, Epy Kusnandar, Very Tri Yulisman
Running Time: 1:58
Release Date: 3/3/17 (limited)
Review by Mark Dujsik | March 2, 2017
There is an air of sadness beneath the many, many instances of bullet-ridden bodies, forcibly broken bones, arterial spray, slit throats, and punctured organs in Headshot. That doesn't even take into account the stabbed jaws, busted tracheas, an eye destroyed by the shell casing from a fired assault rifle, and plenty of bruised chests, arms, and legs. In case the point isn't clear, the film is violent—really, really violent. It's the sort of martial arts movie that, about every 10 minutes, elicits shocked and sympathetic groans for the pain that these mostly nameless henchmen have to endure at the hands, feet, head, and weapons of the hero. The only thing missing, perhaps, is severe injury or death by means of paper cuts.
The film is an Indonesian export, which is somewhat notable because the country's film industry seems to have established its own niche with this particular brand of hyper-violent, martial arts-focused actioner. The star here is Iko Uwais. While his name and face may only be known to the segment of the American film-going population that seeks out this kind of fare, he has already established his own little niche in the local industry by establishing a team of fight choreographers and stunt coordinators. That was probably a smart choice, because movies like this appear to be what economists would call a growth industry.
That team is responsible for the fights and stunts here, which make good use of the "utilize whatever's around in a brawl" philosophy. It's difficult to dub something this pervasively violent as "fun," but there's an undeniable feeling of appreciation for the ingenuity of the action. Whether or not you've ever seen a typewriter used as a weapon in a movie before, it's unlikely that you've seen one used in this particular way and, especially, with this particular result.
Plots don't matter much in fare such as this, and the screenplay, written by co-director Timo Tjahjanto, doesn't attempt to change that notion. Iko plays a mysterious man who washes up on shore near a fisherman's hut. The man, covered in scars and with a severe head wound, is brought to a hospital, where he spends two months in a coma. His attending doctor is Ailin (Chelsea Islan), who calls him Ishmael because she just started reading Moby-Dick (Late in the film, there comes a point during which the character has multiple opportunities to quote the novel's opening line, and it's either a display of great restraint or an unfortunately missed opportunity that it never comes).
Ishmael awakens, suffering from amnesia, and Ailin discovers foreign particles in his skull. He will need to go to hospital in Jakarta to remove them, but Ishmael wants to find out who he is first.
This decision is, of course, a big mistake and, ultimately, rather unnecessary. The people who knew Ishmael when he went by a different name are looking for him. They're part of a gang of gun-runners and drug-dealers led by Mr. Lee (Sunny Pang), a legend among the criminal underworld whose nicknames include "the Father of Hell."
The film opens with Lee escaping from prison with inadvertent help of incompetent guards and inmates who aren't aware they're being used as bullet-fodder. It's a fine, tone-setting sequence that also provides the promise of a diabolical villain at the heart of this conflict—a man who stands off to the side, waiting for the guards and prisoners to run out of ammunition before advancing. Other than a later scene, in which Lee orchestrates the mass murders of a gang whose leader doesn't like his merchandise (before providing a coup de grâce with a pair of chopsticks), it's a promise that is only partially fulfilled. He becomes something of a generically sadistic monster by the end.
The remainder of the plot features Ishmael tracking down Lee, after the gang boss' cronies abduct Ailin (along with a young girl for some exploitatively higher stakes) following a massacre on a bus she's taking to Jakarta. After a couple displays of Lee's cunning and his associates' skills (Julie Estelle plays Lee's right-hand woman, who's adept with a knife), Ishmael finally gets his chance to show off what he can do. His first, real fight takes place on the bus, and the sequence establishes the way that directors Kimo Stamboel and the aforementioned Timo, along with the fight choreography team, make full and appropriate use of whatever space in which a fight erupts.
The bus' close quarters result in a henchman getting his machete stuck against the vehicle's roof. There's a scramble for a lighter after the bus and Ishmael have been dosed in gasoline. The camera follows our hero as he makes a daring escape, only to have him being forced back into the flaming bus. There's an assault on a police station that has Ishmael using assorted tables as shields and, in one instance, a weapon. There's a brief game of cat-and-mouse in the woods, which leads to a fight there and on a nearby beach. What's intriguing is how Timo seems to be constantly challenging himself by writing his protagonist into a corner, meaning that there's tension in never quite being able to predict how Ishmael will escape.
The film's layer of sadness comes from Ishmael's past, which reveals an inescapable bond between himself and the people he's fighting. It imbues the later fights with a sense of regret, although Headshot, admittedly, dismisses that undercurrent by the final confrontation. The film loses most of its ingenuity by that point, too, but there's plenty of it before then to go around.
Copyright © 2017 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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