If movies have taught me nothing—and let’s be fair, movies have taught me most things—it’s that you never, never, ever mess with an amnesiac. Every last one is a secret badass ready to take you apart by muscle memory alone. And that’s certainly the case in Headshot. The set up is strictly Bourne, but the Indonesian directing duo, the Mo Brothers—Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto, who also wrote the script—deliver bonkers action on a level we don’t often encounter.
A young man (Iko Uwais, The Raid) washes up on the beach with a head wound. A young doctor, Ailin (Chelsea Islan, Street Society), nurses him back to health and names him Ishmael because she’s reading Moby Dick. Ishmael’s past comes back to haunt him in the form of Lee (Sunny Pang, The Collector), a crime boss who lords over a crew of fanatical “children” who are more fiercely devoted than your average goons.
It’s all very Dickensian, and Lee has more than a few parallels to Fagin from Oliver Twist. And while the plot may be familiar, the literary allusions add a level of grandeur and girth. Ishmael’s relationship the other children—raised by their outlaw “Father of Hell”—has more meat than your typical, “We were family!” betrayal yarn in most high-octane face-punchy movies. Not a lot more, mind you, but a touch. It also adds an extra layer of sibling-on-sibling barbarity to the fight scenes. Full of unusual quirks and off-kilter choices and details, Headshot ably distinguishes itself from the rest of the genre.
Most known for horror and thrillers like Macabre and Killers, Headshot marks the Mo Brothers’ first foray into action, and they’re more than up to the task. With fights designed by Iko Uwais’ Uwais Team, the superb action is obviously going to garner comparisons to The Raid. From a mechanical standpoint, that’s an apt comparison, but to stop there is to do Headshot a serious disservice.
While some of the best movie martial artists and stunt performers in the world—Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle (Hammer Girl in The Raid 2), Very Tri Yulisman (Baseball Bat Man in The Raid 2), Zack Lee (oddly enough, also The Raid 2), David Hendrawan (The Night Comes for Us)—perpetrate the fight choreography, the Mo Brothers up the ante even further.
Every scene is a hyper-stylized ballet of violence on par with John Woo’s Hong Kong work. Innovative use of slow motion, unusual camera moves and angles, elaborate depth of field, and focus tricks give Headshot a singular dizzying visual aesthetic. Color choices, the way smoke wafts through a frame, and a score that ranges from dreamy and sinister to rhythmic and percussive, accentuate the eccentric, enigmatic elements.
And don’t worry, the Mo Brothers also make excellent use of their horror chops. Brutal, graphic violence and visceral, legitimately stomach-churning savagery abound. We’re talking bone-breaking, face-stabbing, ear-shooting, horrific brutality and gore—if you’ve ever wanted to see a dude with a machete sticking out of his jaw... An angry movie, Headshot seethes with rage. It throbs in both a metaphorical and literal sense—the frame pulses with a palpable fury, reflecting Ishmael’s wrath. Raw and primal, there’s a poetic beauty in the brutality.
While he’s proven time and again he’s one of the great action purveyors in the world, Iko Uwais is admittedly not a top tier dramatic performer. Early on, a few scenes feel repetitive—we get it, Ishmael lost his memory, he’s bonded with Ailin—and after opening on a bananas prison break, Headshot takes a while to really get rolling. But when it does, all you can do is hang on with a white-knuckle death grip. There’s just enough backstory to create emotional investment, but not so much that it derails the pace or tempo. And by the time Ishmael kicks into high gear, the story gets swept to the side—turned to when necessary, but with so much pummeling and chaos, that’s a rare occasion.
Between Headshot and John Wick: Chapter 2, we’ve already had two badass masterpieces this year. (And Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire is yet to come.) On-screen action is rarely this visceral, mesmerizing, or vicious. With a cadre of incredible martial arts talent, the Mo Brothers put their stamp on a new realm and Headshot will be spoken of with reverence by genre purists for years to come. (And thank the heavens, Timo Tjahjanto and most of the core cast—Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Zack Lee, Sunny Pang, and even Joe Taslim from The Raid and Fast & Furious 6—are already working on another action joint.) [Grade: A]