Fantastic Fest: HEADSHOT Is Violent Exhibitionism

A movie that won’t let you look away.

Imagine if someone played a guitar in a way you never thought possible, creating a plethora of sounds that you weren’t aware you ears could even process. Now imagine if they followed it up with “Wonderwall.”

Headshot is a film that works in spite of itself, even if only marginally. A bare-bones blood fest propped up on gore and cracked limbs that revels in violent excess; not the excess of the violence itself (though there’s plenty of that to go around), but the excess that is our indulgence. And while there’s not much else to this slowly waning story, one thing is certain. The Mo Brothers’ Kimo Stamboel likes him some crunch.

The film opens with a shlocky, silly and deliciously violent prison escape, setting up a world where the human body must be hit by anywhere between fifteen and thirty rounds before finally collapsing. There’s no superhuman strength at play here, mind you, but rather an edit and shot selection working in tandem to place you, the viewer, in an objective space, far enough away to see every bullet puncture its intended target (with more than the appropriate volume of blood spatter, both CG and practical) but close enough to justify its vibrating camera, getting closer and more subjective as the story progresses, rotating its equilibrium about 90 degrees by the time we get to midpoint. This is a film that employs shaky-cam ad nauseam, but in a controlled, consice manner that reflects mood more than environment. Whether it’s spying on characters we don’t know or hiding just behind characters we do, the camera feels integral.

Headshot is also relentless in its depiction of violence, giving breathing room to each punch and stab, and playing the injurious reactions out entire seconds longer than one would think necessary. That’s the stuff it succeeds at, but even when it fails, it does so by failing to live up to its own excellence. Iko Uwais’ Ishmael, a former criminal washed ashore with no memory of his past, forms a bond with his doctor Ailin, played by the captivating Chelsea Islan. The two share a set of incredibly sweet scenes together, with Uwais’ on-screen simplicity balancing the dynamic between Ishmael and the bubbly Ailin, but this being an Indonesian martial arts movie means their relationship is about to go to shit.

Ishmael’s past comes charging at him in the form of maniacal, murderous henchmen willing to ravage anyone in their path with a hail of semi-automatic fire. Ailin finds herself an unwitting pawn in their deadly plan at the behest of Lee, a twisted father figure to Ishmael and his super-skilled surrogate siblings. When Ishmael rediscovers his skills against these henchmen from hell, it’s absolutely mayhemic! But when his memory begins to return and the fights become more personal, the over-the-top fight scenes are stripped away in favour of character-focused micro brawls built on legs of glass. This means the movie peaks particularly early, rendering even a fight between Uwais and his The Raid 2 co-star Julie Estelle (somebody give Hammer Girl her own franchise already!) somewhat inert. That’s a strange thing to say given that their physical chemistry is incredible and Estelle is a genuinely stellar presence – she wears some very complicated emotions on her sleeve – but the fact is Headshot isn’t nearly as good as selling us on the characters’ point of view during their development as it is during their fight scenes.

Ishmael’s memories returning not only have no bearing on his behaviour, but they don’t impact the story in the slightest. Not only does he skip over moments of realization before arriving at a place where he knows everything about his next opponent, learning this information manifests only as verbal discussion. The film may as well be about some dude who willingly switched allegiances, because the Bourne angle barely factors in. As the fights enter simpler environments, they also become more visually simple (almost conventional, really) which takes the air out of the third act in a major way. Barring a few instances, the one-on-one fights are no longer about exhibiting violence, but about violence as an extension of characters who happen to be empty, and they’re choreographed like the kind of straightforward martial arts movies that the rest of Headshot feels in response to.

That being said, what the film eventually devolves in to makes its first half seem like that much more of an achievement, so if you buy your ticket with the intention of seeing some truly inventive action, you’ll probably get your money’s worth. Before the personal fights get underway, the film’s big set pieces – a bus, a police station, a drug warehouse, an interrogation room – are the stuff of action gold. The film holds and holds and holds, refusing to cut away from the meticulously realist choreography in a way that feels impactful. Not only that, the pain and violence is almost comically drawn out (one henchman has to extract a machete from the epidermis of his own neck), and it places Iko Uwais in ridiculous predicament after ridiculous predicament, as if Jackie Chan watched The Raid and decided to have a go at it.

Uwais begins one fight chained to an interrogation table, another empty-handed against a pair of shotguns, and a third doused in gasoline while trying to blow out his opponent’s lighter. Everything from filing cabinets to paper cutters come into play, but even the playfulness is counteracted with an almost acidic dose of visual intensity, going in tight, hyper-saturated and strobed well beyond your average beat-em-up. It’s the kind of action that makes you squirm while simultaneously craving more of it, where even the buildup is constructed with a sense of excitement, perfectly setting up every “Are they going to go there?” and answering it with an emphatic “You bet we are.”

While the film’s approach to its own style is ultimately its undoing, slowly chipping away the elements that brings about its rousing highs, its those highs that make Headshot the kind of martial arts bone-cruncher that would play at midnight during Fantastic Fest. The story is boring to the point that ‘generic’ doesn’t even begin to cover it, but it wins half the battle by reveling in its own strengths to the point of intoxication. Find me another movie where a guy has his punch blocked by a typewriter (and then continues punching with its mechanical bits protruding from his knuckles!) and I’ll gladly dismiss Headshot wholesale. Until then, I’ll maintain that this victim of its own aesthetic deserves your full, fist-pumping attention for about two thirds of its runtime. You’d still tell your friends about that guitarist.