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.

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