[NOTE: This is a re-post of our review from the Toronto International Film Festival; Headshot opens in limited release this weekend]
The Raid is a high bar to set for action movies, but since it’s my only frame of reference for Indonesian action cinema, it is, for better or worse, the standard I set for similar movies. However, it’s not too much of an unfair comparison when it comes to Headshot, a movie co-directed by Timo Tjahjanto, who co-directed the V/H/S/2 short “Safe Haven” with Raid director Gareth Evans, and starring Raid lead actor Iko Uwais. Both movies feature balls-to-wall action and plenty of violence, but a flat-footed film like Headshot makes you appreciate the skill that went into the Raid movies. Tjahjanto and co-director Kimo Stamboel (also known as the “Mo Brothers”) pile on as much action as possible rather than looking for the best possible hits.
A young man with a head wound (Uwais) washes up on the shore of a small Indonesian village. He’s taken to a local hospital and cared for by kindly doctor Ailin (Chelsea Islan), who dubs him Ishmael after the book she’s reading, Moby Dick. When he wakes up two months later, he has no memory of his real name or past life. Ailin suggests they go to Jakarta to get the bullet fragments removed from his skull, and she goes ahead of him on a bus ride. However, gang members working for the sinister Lee (Sunny Pang) ambush the bus and kidnap Ailin to draw out “Ishmael”. Ishmael then goes on a rampage to rescue Ailin while flashes of his past life begin returning to his memory.
Headshot wants to scratch your itch for mindless violence. Its plot is paper-thin and predictable, and that’s not necessarily a strike against a martial arts movie. It isn’t like The Raid movies had rich, complex stories (part of the problem with The Raid 2 is how it overcomplicates the plot). But violence still requires tension, and Headshot lacks tension. It’s a cartoonish bloodbath minus the fun of a cartoon. The Mo Brothers don’t mind beating their characters to a pulp, but we’re never invested in the action. If you’re going to skimp on character and plot, then you need to deliver in the set pieces, but Tjahjanto and Stamboel fall woefully short.
There’s nothing particularly memorable or imaginative about the way the fights are staged. It’s a lot of shaky cam fisticuffs, and the directors seem to enjoy moving the camera in a 360 around the fistfight. But Headshot lacks the speed and vivacity that Evans pulled off in his Raid movies. It may be slightly unfair to make that comparison, but both movies are utilizing Uwais, a martial artist who has the physical talent to do remarkable things. However, the Mo Brothers never take full advantage of their gifted star. They don’t have the visual prowess or editing skills to make the fights more than a series of rote beatdowns and shootouts.
And yet they labor under the belief that more is better, and a movie that should have been a lean actioner instead runs almost two hours even though it’s just a damsel-in-distress story featuring an amnesiac whose memories hold absolutely zero twists. If you have the action chops to pull of mind-boggling set pieces, you can get away with a longer runtime, but Headshot is rarely exhilarating or inspired. Eventually, fight fatigue sets in and we know that the directors aren’t going to do anything to surprise us. Headshot unloads on its target, but it often misses the mark.
Headshot opens in limited release this weekend.