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.


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)

"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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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