It somewhat annoys me when people only watch movies because “of the stars that are in it”, because there are loads of movies with “stars” that are terrible. A good screenplay, director, and many other collaborators are what makes, or breaks, a film. That’s not to discredit actors who can elevate certain material. Sometimes actors greatly improve the movie, where if weren’t for them, it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as memorable. I’ll admit that I can sometimes be a bit of a hypocrite, though. For example, I only saw this new film Headshot because it starred Iko Uwais, the star of the fantastic Raid films. The circumstances surrounding him are a bit different, though.

Headshot opens on an Indonesian beach, where local fisherman Romli (Yayu A.W. Unru) finds unconscious young man Ishmael (Iko Uwais) washed up on the shore. When an amnesiac Ishmael awakens from a coma two months later, he finds out from his nurse Ailin (Chelsea Islan) that he was shot in the head. Soon after, scary looking thugs start looking for him, killing everyone in their site, and kidnapping Ailin. Now, with a girl to save and a memory to uncover, Ishmael must viciously fight his way through the streets and jungles of Indonesia to survive.

While Uwais had nothing to do with the screenwriting, or directing, the film is all about him. Like The Raid films, Headshot is a martial arts film all about displaying brutal martial arts choreography. Uwais isn’t just the star, but according to the credits, he now heads his own fight choreography team. I, of course, expected the actual choreography of the fights to be stellar, but I wasn’t expecting the amount of creativity involved in each one. Uwais and screenwriters/directors Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto (who refer to themselves as The Mo Brothers) could have easily just gone for flashy moves, but they wisely chose to differentiate each fight scene in terms of technique and location. Each fight scene takes place in a unique locale, where when the fight escalates, the fighters use more and more of their environment to assist in their fight. If you’re fighting somebody in an office setting, why not rip off a paper cutter blade and go to town, you know? While the creativity was fun to watch, the desperation the characters displayed left me catching my breath after each confrontation. I felt almost as exhausted as them.

While each fight scene was exhilarating in their ferocity, technique, and scope, I felt it was hampered a bit by some of the shoddy editing and direction. A lot of the action is beautifully captured, but there are times where the Mo Brothers get a bit too ambitious. There are a lot long shots featuring the characters fighting, but it’s obvious when those long shots are interrupted by a shaken camera in order to work in a hidden edit. The choreography and skill was there in the martial arts aspect, but the actual filmmaking technique felt more reminiscent of a B-action movie. This was a something I felt from the beginning, as there’s a disgusting griminess to the aesthetic, the film especially unabashed at displaying gruesome violence in all of its glory. I don’t often wince at movie violence, but this had me occasionally squirming in my seat, mostly due to the incredibly realistic special effects.

This B-movie feeling is further emphasized by the lackluster plot and stock characters. This is especially evident with the character of Ailin, who is basically relegated to a damsel in distress role. Her character is intended to be the conduit that grounds Ishmael to the real, non-violent world, helping him become a better person. This aspect works during the first act of the film, but falters when she ends up spending the remainder of the film holed up in a cell, waiting to be rescued. Uwais and Islan have good chemistry with each other, but their relationship felt very manufactured to me in a cheap way to create some stakes and add some thematic depth. Cheesy piano chords while they embrace each other won’t work on me!

When Ishmael isn’t fighting to the death to rescue Ailin, he’s slowly uncovering revelations about his past and why he’s in his current situation. This is the more interesting part of the story, as it doesn’t just explore where Ishmael came from, but really delves into the idea of nature vs. nurture and familial bonds. Ishmael runs into many people from his past, who come from the same horrific upbringing, each person revealing something extra about his character. This all culminates with the main antagonist Lee (Sunny Pang), who comes off as charismatic, but ultimately vile. He has a presence from the moment he appears on screen and is so much fun to watch. If there’s one thing every action film benefits from, it’s a dastardly villain.

While the attempts at drama and characterization didn’t always work, if there was one goal Headshot had, it was first and foremost to continue showcasing the incredible skills of Iko Uwais. In that way, it was successful. If The Raid films left you hankering for more incredible martial arts action, then Headshot just may be the tonic you require. You won’t get the same amount of polished grittiness of The Raid: Redemption, nor the vast scope of the The Raid 2: Berandal, but if you’re here to see Uwais break somebody’s face in, there’s no reason to be disappointed.


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