‘Headshot’: Film Review

Courtesy of XYZ Films
Inventively intense martial arts mayhem.

‘The Raid’ star Iko Uwais plays a violent amnesiac searching for the vicious gangsters who left him for dead in this Indonesian thriller.

Although it has long been a staple of regional cinema, the traditional Southeast Asian martial art of silat burst onto the international scene in a big way with the debut of Gareth Evan’s 2011 action film The Raid and its 2014 sequel. In fact, silat expert Iko Uwais so impressed that smaller stunt roles in Keanu Reeves’ Man of Tai Chi and then Star Wars: The Force Awakens soon followed.

Meanwhile, writer-directors Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel (as The Mo Brothers) were developing their genre chops with Indonesian features Macabre and Killers, while Tjahjanto also contributed to U.S. omnibus horror outings The ABCs of Death and V/H/S/2. Productively collaborating on Headshot, a violent account of an amnesiac who unexpectedly discovers his lethal combat skills, the trio deliver a lean, agile actioner that will irresistibly attract fans of extreme action and anyone curious about innovative martial arts stuntwork.

With no recollection of the shooting that left a deep bullet wound slashed across his forehead, hospital patient Ishmael (Uwais) recovers consciousness after two months in a coma to find medical resident Ailin (Chelsea Islan) at his bedside. While completing her rotation at the provincial clinic, she took the young man’s case and nursed him back to health. Now that he’s finally alert, he’s exhibiting symptoms of amnesia, so she refers to him by the name of Melville’s protagonist from the translation of Moby Dick that she’s reading. Disoriented and vulnerable, Ishmael depends on Ailin to help him regain his bearings on the isolated island, but he’s frequently plagued by anxiety and vague, troubling flashes of memory.

A sudden altercation at the hospital after a local gangster threatens Ailin in his search for somebody named “Abdi” spurs Ishmael into action as he viciously repels the interloper, only relenting when his doctor intervenes. After he settles down, Ailin prepares for her return home, but rifle-wielding thugs ambush her Jakarta-bound bus, wiping out most of the passengers in a bust of gunfire and kidnapping Ailin just as she gets a distress call out to Ishmael.

When he arrives at the scene of the massacre, the remaining attackers attempt to burn him alive inside the bus and after he narrowly escapes, the cops promptly arrest him for the shooting. Even inside the police station he’s not safe, as it comes under assault by a couple of ruthless killers attempting to track Ishmael down. With each successive confrontation, more of his memories flood back and he begins to vividly recall the reign of a merciless drug lord, a series of sinister child kidnappings and the real identity of the mysterious man known as Abdi.

Uwais, who vigorously shredded almost every scene in the nonstop action onslaught of the Raid movies, dials back the intensity a bit as the amnesiac patient with a dark secret. Tjahjanto crafts a recognizably dimensional and sympathetic character in Ishmael, but his murky backstory detracts somewhat from his relatability. Singaporean martial arts expert Sunny Pang as his antagonist and former mentor Mr. Lee makes a more dramatic impact, never hesitating to demonstrate his ruthlessness.

Not that either one of them holds anything back when it comes to their final showdown, as the jabs, kicks and flips follow in furious succession. Choreographed by Uwais’ own stunt team, the fight sequences feature blistering exchanges of blows in a visceral martial arts style that favors effectiveness over gracefulness. Aside from far too many automatic weapons, the film’s gut-churning assaults rely essentially on hand-to-hand (or hand-to-knife) combat. There’s nothing more high-tech than a few mobile phones to aid these gangsters in their relentless campaign of attrition, although bullet casings and chopsticks are fair game as improvised weapons.

More accustomed to horror material than action extravaganzas, Stamboel and Tjahjanto’s nimble approach maintains a compelling perspective on the key set pieces without overstaging scenes or crowding them with too many extras. This pared-down style keeps the focus on the actors’ highly efficient combat skills and astounding acrobatics. Cinematographer Yunus Pasolang’s prowling camera and sinuously fluid Steadicam shots provide robust support that consistently resonates with the impressive stuntwork on display.

Production company: Screenplay Infinite Films
: Vertical Entertainment, XYZ Films
Cast: Iko Uwais, Sunny Pang, Chelsea Islan, Julie Estelle
Directors: Kimo Stamboel, Timo Tjahjanto
Screenwriter: Timo Tjahjanto
Producers: Mike Wiluan, Shinjiro Nishimura, Wicky V. Olindo, Sukhdev Singh
producers: Sutanto Hartono, Haruhiko Miyano, Kenji Ishibashi
Director of photography: Yunus Pasolang
Production designer: Iqbal Marjono
Costume designer: Aldie Harra
Editor: Arifin Cuunk
Music: Aria Prayogi, Fajar Yuskemal
Casting director: Calvin Moniaga

118 minutes