When did the amnesiac action hero purchase enough real estate to make up its own niche within the genre? Somewhere between Total Recall and the Bourne franchise, it seems, with the last two Fast and Furious and one-offs like Unknown sprinkled in between. There’s a very specific structure to these kinds of movies, one that Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel’s latest directorial team-up, Headshot, mimics as only Indonesian genre cinema can: graphically. Headshot echoes of the memory loss movies you know and love, but it’s overlaid with escalating and relentlessly jolting bloodshed, as though each scene is in competition with the one before to come out on top as the goriest in the film’s run time.
There’s plenty of run time here, too—just under two hours—so Headshot is one awash in crimson. If you’re the squeamish sort, then the film won’t be for you. If you’ve been a fan of Indonesian film since Gareth Huw Evans one-upped modern action cinema with 2011’s The Raid: Redemption and then again with 2014’s The Raid 2, or if you liked Indonesian film before it was cool thanks to either Merantau, Evans’ 2009 sophomore effort, or Macabre, Tjahjanto and Stamboel’s first feature collaboration, then you’re probably already jonesing for Headshot and the sweet release of brutally kinetic fight scenes where human beings sustain more injuries per second than anyone should be able to take before dropping dead.
Headshot begins with a jailbreak, as a mysterious, preternaturally lethal prisoner named Lee (Sunny Pang) is sprung from his padlocked cell and goes on a killing spree. From there, the story continues with the beachside discovery of a man with no identification, cheekily dubbed “Ishmael” by Ailin (Chelsea Islan), the doctor who treats him as he recovers in the hospital from taking a bullet to the brain. (Hence the name of the movie. It might not be imaginative, but damn if it doesn’t get the point across.) Ishmael, played by none other than the great Iko Uwais, Indonesia’s best-known action star, harbors a personal secret of a tragic, sobering nature, and as Headshot rolls along, that secret endangers Ailin’s life and upends Ishmael’s newfound identity when Lee comes a-calling.
Anyone familiar with the tropes of this kind of flick can pretty easily guess that Ishmael is a veritable killing machine, a man bred to wreck any poor bastard fool enough to tangle with him. The film takes his backstory beyond the edges of obviousness, though, eventually landing somewhere in the same neighborhood as movies like Louis Leterier’s Unleashed (a.k.a. Danny the Dog), where childhood innocence is tied to adult barbarity. Headshot is surprisingly melancholic, an actioner built to break hearts as easily as Uwais breaks bones, characters paying for the crimes of their past with their lives in the present. In several instances, innocent people end up paying, too: Lee’s thugs hijack a bus on its way to Jakarta, intending on finding Ishmael. When they realize he isn’t aboard, they murder the other passengers and burn the evidence, which just adds to Ishmael’s moral onus.
Odds are that you’re not tuning into Headshot for the story, of course. The good news is that the film delivers in the ass-kicking department. The better news, perhaps, is that Tjahjanto and Stamboel have outdone The Raid 2’s bloated fusion of story and action. That film expands on its predecessor by marrying the particulars of mobster films with Evans’ aesthetic as an action director, but cries out for a decisive pruning at 150 minutes in length. Headshot clocks in at only 118 minutes and spaces out narrative beats and beatings beautifully, developing the harrowing truth of Ishmael’s upbringing without either belaboring the point or denying the audience the thrill of unhinged but precisely choreographed martial arts violence.
Maybe that’s a credit to the level to which Tjahjanto and Stamboel take their set pieces. They push past the limit of expectations and continually find new ways to drop our jaws through sheer savagery. About halfway through, Uwais dukes it out in a police station with two heavies responsible for executing every officer in the joint, improvising weaponry to save his life. A typewriter turns into ballistic ordnance, and the arm of a paper trimmer substitutes for a machete. Equally as creative as the film’s array of makeshift armaments is the variety of bodily abuses it catalogues from moment to moment, archiving stabbings and gunshot wounds with mutilated ears and the occasional caved-in face. It’s fittingly stomach-churning stuff, because in 2017, that’s what we’ve come to expect from Indonesia’s action imports (to say nothing of its horror imports).
Broad swaths of the action movie canon are fist-pumping shindigs that celebrate good guys serving bad guys their just desserts. In Headshot, as in the films of Evans, the action snatches the breath out of our lungs. The end of each fight relieves us of our ratcheting anxiety. Coupling that dynamic with the emotional substance of Ishmael’s existential woe makes Headshot a soul-rattling, hand-wringing affair made with Tjahjanto and Stamboel’s daringly aggressive sense of craft. You’ll nearly wish that more filmmakers shot action movies the way this duo does—but your nerves probably couldn’t take it if they did.
Directors: Timo Tjahjanto, Kimo Stamboel
Writer: Timo Tjahjanto
Starring: Iko Uwais, Sunny Pang, Chelsea Islan, Julie Estelle, Zack Lee, Very Tri Yulisman, David Hendrawan
Release Date: March 3, 2017
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film and television online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.