Reviews

Violence Is the Vehicle, Not the Point, in 'Headshot'

Iko Uwais as Ishmael

Headshot puts a few well-known action movies through something of a blender to come up with a strangely brilliant concoction.


Headshot

Director: Kimo Stamboel, Timo Tjahjanto
Cast: Iko Uwais, Sunny Pang, Chelsea Islan
Rated: R
Studio: Vertical Entertainment
Year: 2016
US date: 2017-03-03 (Limited release)
UK date: 2017-03-03 (General release)
Website
Trailer

"Do you remember anything?" Ishmael (Iko Uwais), looks out across the ocean. "I see shadows," he says. "But nothing feels familiar."

Ishmael isn't his real name, and both you and Ailin (Chelsea Islan) know that. He's got a ferocious scar on his forehead, hence the name of this film, Headshot. In the scene just before, he woke up in a hospital room, where Ailin parked herself, his guardian angel as well as his doctor. At that point, he chose the name Ishmael, after taking note that she was reading Moby Dick. Here, on the beach where Ailin has brought him to take in some fresh air, they sit on a log: she snaps a photo of her patient and then watches him carefully, looking for clues -- about his identity, his background, his injury. The wind blows, she points out the spot on shore where he washed up days before, half dead. "Don't be tense," she smiles.

Ailin means well, you know. But you also know that Ishmael has to be tense. Even if he doesn't have a memory, you have many, especially of recent movies presenting this scenario, namely, that Ishmael's injury is a sign of a larger plot. That plot is familiar to you, because you've seen The Bourne Identity, featuring the nearly-drowned-super-killer-with-amnesia and maybe even The Raid, featuring Uwais.

Now in select theaters and available on iTunes, Headshot puts these and a couple of other films through something of a blender to come up with a strangely brilliant concoction. Lots of martial arts and action movies feature great choreography; here again, Indonesian star Uwais works with film directors Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel (the Mo Brothers) to do just that. Headshot brings another dimension, via cinematographer Yunus Pasolang, as the camera becomes a partner in its exhilarating dance of violence. From the very first scene, where the villain Mr. Lee (Sunny Pang) busts out of prison amid a monumentally bloody battle between cops and inmates, to the last showdown between Lee and Ishmael, you not only feel a wild mix of sensory effects but also understand character through discomforting close-ups of smashed fists and faces or shots circling contorted bodies.

As arresting as they may be, it's not easy to make characters out of such pieces, even if they are accompanied by grunts or cracking sounds to underscore suffering. What Headshot does particularly well is stitch together sequences of vivid fragments, so you might glean narrative, even cause and effect. This helps in a movie where the story per se is too familiar: Ishmael has been a victim, he's survived an ordeal, and now he's surprised to learn how adept he can be at wreaking vengeance… especially in the service of his new best friend Ailin.

The film establishes Ishmael's past -- the "shadows" that haunt him -- so you might overlook their perversely overwrought banality. Almost as soon as he wakes, Ishmael's memory fragments are triggered: he grabs his head and squinches his eyes, and the scene slips from present to past, flashes of dark or fiery locations, blurry faces, guns pointed at the camera -- not to mention that the hand mirror he holds cracks as if by the sheer intensity of his glare. All of these hint at the brutality that's turned him into a killing machine.

Evidence of that effect appears soon enough, as Ishmael appears in a scene where Ailin is in trouble. In a hospital examination room there's Bondi (Ganindra Bimo), one of Lee's punk-thugs (shorthand signs: sullen, tattooed, spiky-haired) harasses Ailin (who's treating Bondi's cuts, which you've seen inflicted by Lee in a previous scene). When he refuses to give up Ishmael's whereabouts, Bondi escalates his menace by putting his hands on her face. Another hand flashes into the frame, which then jerks back to follow the violent movement that follows: it's Ishmael, of course.

The ensuing fight is introduced as a kind fugue state for Ishmael: a fisheye lens shows his eyes roll back as the background blurs: he turns to face the assailant and, like Jason Bourne, his moves are deft and deadly, the camera swooping and slowing down to follow Bondi's feeble attempt to pull a handgun and Ishmael's response, which is to say, his utter unmanning of his opponent, while Ailin watches, out of focus and doing her best to talk her patient down.

This brief explosive moment frames all the other fight scenes to follow. Each sets opponents in specific space, in relation to one another, and then makes the space part of the story. The fight scenes are the plot scenes, as Ishmael confronts a series of former associates and current Lee minions, until at last he challenges Lee in person. The camera swings and cuts and zooms in or out, it follows action slamming up a wall or clambering under a table. An especially melodramatic encounter occurs on a beach: Ishmael faces Rika (Julie Estelle, tremendous as Hammer Girl in The Raid 2). They walk slowly, one behind the other, at first, then slam into battle, eyes wide and bodies writhing -- a long overhead shot shows a red swirl in the water -- to show their simultaneous connection and desperation: they've come from a same place, the same damage, and now, as much as they'd rather not, they must come to the same finish.

It's a cliché to call these fights balletic or the camerawork athletic. But the combination of these movements -- of bodies and frames, in harmony and in evocative tension -- is mesmerizing. The violence is the vehicle, rather than the point. Where the saga of the victim who overcomes trauma or the abusive father who never learns or even the untrained girl who finds incredible resources and deadly aim when she has to is surely made excessive here; this is the other story, of energy, color, and shape, art made of and about bodies. The metaphor is as expansive as it is visceral.

8


Music


Books


Film


Television


Recent
Books

Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.

Music

Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.

Music

Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.

Music

'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.

Film

Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".

Music

12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.

Music

Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.

Music

Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.

Music

Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".

Film

Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.

Music

The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.

Music

Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.

Music

Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.

Music

Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.

Film

The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.

Music

Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.

Music

Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.

Music

Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.