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Non-Review Review: Headshot

This film was seen as part of the Audi Dublin International Film Festival 2017.

The obvious (and easy) comparison for Headshot is The Raid.

Part of that is down to the superficial similarities. Both are relatively straightforward Indonesian action movies starring Iko Uwais with an emphasis on martial arts. Even beyond that, The Raid was a breakout hit and exists as one of the defining modern martial arts movies for wider audiences. Even without the similar stuntwork and the combination of lead actor and genre, The Raid would be a stock point of comparison for Headshot. The film even seems to invite and encourage the comparison, with directors Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto consciously evoking Gareth Evans’ style.

Headed into danger.

Headed into danger.

The comparison does Headshot no favours. For all the similarities between the two films, the differences are telling. Headshot has a style that consciously evokes The Raid, but it lacks its streamlined efficiency. It has a number of impressive prop-heavy set pieces that call to mind the impressive work in The Raid, but it never embraces the loose and freewheeling style that made The Raid so striking. More than that, Headshot never manages the delicate balance between rudimentary character work and a solid story, leading to a film that feels both paper-thin and over-developed.

Headshot is a solidly middle-of-the-road martial arts slugfest, but it lacks the sheer “wow!” factor that made The Raid pop.

Bar none.

Bar none.

Headshot certainly looks impressive. There are a number of fantastically choreographed action beats that really jump off the screen, demonstrating the talent of the production team and the cast at bringing these set pieces to life. It is more than just the visceral impact of flesh (and prop) upon flesh, although there is plenty of that. There is an innate awareness of environment and location. Machetes get stuck in low ceilings, characters chained to police desks use them for leverage, sand and trees provide natural weapons and shields in the wilderness.

There is an endearing efficiency to these sequences, an action movie twist on Chekov’s Law. When the villainous Lee shows up to a business meeting with a bag of takeaway noodles and a set of chopsticks, it is only a matter of time before those chopsticks end up going somewhere very vital. Headshot never feels disingenuous in its set-ups or its set pieces, with almost every detail of the characters’ surrounding serving as a weapon that could be brought into play at any given second. If Headshot were a video game, its background would consist of nothing but clickable elements.

Lee-d the way.

Lee-d the way.

Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto handle these scenes quite well, generally filming in long takes and moving the camera in such a way as to create a sense of kinetic adrenaline-driven momentum to the action. There is never a sense that the edit is hiding anything, instead that the camera is constantly searching for the best angle to showcase the impressive stunt work. All of the performers are at the top of their game, moving in rhythm to an invisible drum that might just be the audience’s heartbeat.

However, Headshot also brushes up against its limitations in these sequences. The movie never feels quite as intense as The Raid, never quite as commiited to the idea of its world constructed from potential weaponry. At one point during a scuffle on a beaten-down bus, a character’s leg brushes against the radio and switches it on. It is a nice detail, another example of the texture of this world. However, it feels curiously underplayed. The juxtaposition of afternoon radio playing over a no-holds-barred brawl is never fully realised.

"Don't worry. It's not my blood. Although, actually, that's not really a healthy thing either, right?"

“Don’t worry. It’s not my blood. Although, actually, that’s not really a healthy thing either, right?”

The plotting also suffers. The plot to a martial arts film (or any action film) is usually just a hanger designed to support a half-dozen set pieces and beats. The idea is to provide the audience with a framework to root for the hero in their fight against the villain, and to loosely explain why these brutal throw downs are happening in these locations. The Raid is a perfect example of this, a simple and streamlined story of a botched police raid with the simple emotional hook of one man trying to find his brother. It is hardly novel, but it is effective.

Headshot over-complicates things completely. The basic plot finds an anonymous man washed up on a beach with a bullet hole in his head. The man has no idea who he is, but he has some pretty impressive martial arts skills. He falls in love with his doctor, and finds himself coming face to face with a local druglord named “Lee.” This is an effective set-up, even if the first half-hour of the film overplays things slightly by spending far too much time on a relationship between the stranger and his doctor that exists only as a plot hook.

The script could use a punch-up.

The script could use a punch-up.

This is not a bad basis for a film. The Bourne Identity is a very simple, but effective, film built around the similar premise. However, Headshot goes even further, building a somewhat unnecessary mythology into the story about child soldiers. From a plotting perspective, this mythology helps to provide a tragic and traumatic history for the anonymous amnesiac bruiser, but it also undercuts a lot of the rest of the film. After all, this plot point underscores the idea that everyone the protagonist kills over the course of the film is just as much a victim as he was.

There are moments when Headshot comes close to distilling this back story into a compelling narrative hook, most notably in the third act in which the hero’s surrogate family literally pull him from the grip of his abusive father figure, but there is a sense that Headshot is unnecessary complicated in terms of plotting. This is a movie that lacks the same drive and purpose that made The Raid such a breakout hit. With Headshot, the thread connecting these set pieces feels weaker and more frayed.

Boom or bussed.

Boom or bussed.

It doesn’t help matters that this relatively heavy plot mythology comes at the expense of basic internal logic. There is an early bloodbath in a very confined location with assault weapons that conveniently leaves two plot-relevant survivors; the hero’s love interest and an adorable child. Inevitably, the bad guys attempt to ransom those two women to lure the hero into the trap, but it all feels incredibly convenient even by the relaxed logic of these sorts of martial arts throwdown movies.

Headshot is a visually impressive film, even if it never quite matches the stunt-driven insanity or the plot-based simplicity of The Raid. The result is a film that is as frustrating as it is compelling, a tale of a hero moving through a world that never feels real no matter how much weight its elements might have when employed them as weapons.

I don’t normally rate films, but the Audi Dublin International Film Festival asks the audience to rank a film from 1 (worst) to 4 (best). In the interest of full and frank disclosure, I ranked this film: 2

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