Studio: XYZ Films and Vertical Entertainment
Directed by Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto

Mar 03, 2017 Web Exclusive
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Headshot has a pretty succinct pitch: “The Bourne Identity meets Kill Bill starring Iko Uwais”. Uwais, an Indonesian silat fighter who became an overnight sensation after starring in director Gareth Edwards’ 2011 action masterpiece The Raid and it’s 2014 sequel, will be the obvious draw for any discerning martial arts fan. Combining a soulful, down-to-earth screen presence with a tireless, brutal fighting style, Uwais feels like he’s one English-language supporting role away from becoming an international superstar. Although it provides him with a serviceable – if trite – dramatic arc to play, as well as some savage fight sequences, Headshot ends up feeling more like a resume-builder than an escalation in his career.

Uwais stars as a man who washes up on a beach with bullet fragments in his head and no memory of his identity or past. Nursed back to health by a local doctor who dubs him Ishmael – one guess as to what book she’s reading in her introductory scene – he discovers that he was betrayed and left for dead by a gang of vicious criminals who have returned to finish the job. The first half is a bit of a slow burn, establishing Ishmael’s mostly platonic friendship with Ailin, the doctor who rescues him. The back half of the film abruptly switches gears and attempts to explore his relationship with his former friends turned enemies. In the end, neither aspect of the story feels fully served. This is especially disappointing given how charming Chelsea Islan is as Ailin, who gets relegated to damseling and looking after a helpless little girl once the action picks up.

Speaking of the action – which is the only reason anyone’s reading this review, I know – it’s pretty impressive, if not groundbreaking. Whereas The Raid films wowed with innovative camera work and logistically complex fight sequences, Headshot writing/directing team Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto – collectively credited as the Mo Brothers – opt for a more stripped down approach, both narratively and technically. Many martial arts films revel in their heroes facing twenty to one odds, but Headshot consists almost exclusively of mano a mano showdowns as Ishmael tears through his former gang piece by piece. This has its advantages, the major one being that every fight feels like the fight of Ishmael’s life, even the ones against opponents who in any other action film would be dispatched in a matter of seconds. The camera work never reaches Bourne levels of incoherence, but is needlessly shaky given how many of the actors are trained fighters who don’t need to hide their lack of experience behind editing tricks. Especially annoying is a recurring 360-degree shot circling the fighters, which is meant to be immersive, but just feels showy.

The other major drawback is the locations of the fights, which seem to get increasingly featureless as the film goes on. There’s an office building, a forest clearing and a beach, with the climactic showdown occurring in a bare concrete room. But the combat succeeds overall by giving Ishmael an effective – if repetitive – connection to his opponents. Most impressive is his throw down against Uwais’ The Raid 2 co-star Julie Estelle. Although she lacks the iconic gimmick of her previous character – a mute assassin duel-wielding claw hammers – Estelle is striking on her own merits, here in a face bandana and lopsided belt that give her the air of a Western outlaw. Headshot doesn’t break any new ground – except in the area of CG blood and gunshot wounds, giving the John Wick films a run for their money in terms of realism and sheer magnitude – but is definitely worth the time of any martial arts fan eager to see Uwais in action while they await the inevitable third entry in The Raid series.

Author rating: 6.5/10

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