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Film Review: ‘Headshot’

Fans of extreme Asian genre action won't care that things eventually grow somewhat predictable and repetitive: In terms of sheer, punchy physical vigor, "Headshot" is a knockout.

headshot tiff
Courtesy of TIFF

Fans of the “Raid” movies will be on happily familiar turf with “Headshot,” in which the Indonesian star/action-choreographer of those films, Iko Uwais, teams with directing duo Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel (a.k.a. “The Mo Brothers”) to fill another two hours with terrifically visceral fight scenes. There’s a little more plot on hand this time — which is to say, a tad more than practically none — which helps delay the nonetheless inevitable too-much-of-a-good-thing saturation point of this gore fest. Still, fans of extreme Asian genre action won’t care that things eventually grow somewhat predictable and repetitive: In terms of sheer, punchy physical vigor, “Headshot” is a knockout.

Pretty Ailin (Chelsea Islan) is a Jakarta med-school student interning on a small Indonesian island when the body of a battered man is found washed ashore. It turns out he’s not quite dead, and in two months under her care, he wakes from his coma. Initially amnesiac due to a bullet lodged in his brain, with no memory of who he is or how he got there, he’s dubbed “Ishmael” (she’s reading Melville). But news of the mysterious stranger gets back to crime kingpin Mr. Lee (Sunny Pang), who knows exactly who the young man is — in fact, it was Lee himself who shot him, for rebellious behavior, and had him thrown into the sea. Ishmael (Uwais) is really Abdi, one of numerous children kidnapped by Lee’s organization over the years and trained. Those who survived the sadistic training grew up to be remorseless, unthinkingly loyal killers. It’s a cult-like operation, and our hero made the near-fatal mistake of trying to leave the cult.

Regrouping his forces after a bloody escape from prison (a set piece that opens the film), Lee is more determined than ever to snuff out any opposition within his ranks. When the recovered Abdi proves elusive, Ailin is kidnapped to lure him into the gang’s clutches.

At about the midpoint, the already action-packed film becomes a straightforward gauntlet of mostly one-on-one fight scenes, as Abdi must battle his way up the hierarchy of lethal former fellow assassins (played in ascending order by Zack Lee, David Hendrawan, Very Tri Yulisman and Julie Estelle) before his inevitable face-off with the evil Mr. Lee.

There’s little narrative surprise or suspense once that trajectory kicks in, and “Headshot” is the kind of movie where you have to overlook myriad credulity-stretching aspects to buy the premise at all. Not only does Ishmael/Abdi constantly elude hails of close-range automatic gunfire and bounce back from bone-crackingly brutal punishment, but he rises from a coma looking like someone who’s just spent those same 60 days doing abdominal crunches. Of course, realism is hardly on the menu with a pure adrenaline fantasy like this one. What it does serve up in massive quantities is showy action of both the bullet-ballet and martial arts variety, with other implements (including chopsticks) thrown in to further ratchet up the frequent digital spurts of blood.

As with the “Raid” films, the visual content is first-rate, and just about any of the set pieces here might have provided an admirable climax to a lesser genre exercise. Lined up in a row, however, they begin to lose some impact after a while, though the Mo Brothers (moving away from the more horror-focused terrain of prior features “Macabre” and “Killers”) prove as adept at staging them as “Raid” helmer Gareth Evans. Likewise, the star’s action choreography (credited to “Uwais Team,” while both he and Tjahjanto are billed as the action directors) is imaginative as well as ass-whippingly intense.

Performances are fine considering the one-dimensional nature of the characters. Likewise, a tad more thought could have been expended in the service of generating a few more plot fillips, and perhaps using a more diverse array of locations than the nondescript ones deployed here. But “Headshot” is very single-minded about what it is interested in — fights, fights, and more fights — so everything else in the efficiently tooled conception and assembly must take a back seat. And indeed, the film does what it does so well that few will care about its skimping in nearly every other basic department.

Film Review: ‘Headshot’

Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Midnight Madness), Sept. 10, 2016. Running time: 118 MIN.

  • Production: (Indonesia) A Screenplay Infinite Films presentation in association with Surya Citra Media, Amuse and Nikkatsu Corp. of a Screenplay Infinite Films production. (International sales: XYZ Films, Los Angeles.) Producers: Mike Wiluan, Sukhdev Singh, Wicky V. Olindo, Shinjiro Nishimura. Executive producers: Sutanto Hartono, Haruhiko Miyano, Kenji Ishibashi.
  • Crew: Director: Timo Tjahjanto, Kimo Stamboel. Screenplay: Tjahjanto. Camera (color, widescreen, HD): Yunus Pasolang. Editor: Arifin Cuunk.
  • With: Iko Uwais, Chelsea Islan, Sunny Pang, Julie Estelle, Very Tri Yulisman, David Hendrawan, Zack Lee, Yayu Unru, Ganindra Bimo, Bront Palarae, Egi Fedly. (Indonesian, English dialogue.)