Unless you’re familiar with the low budget, over the top directorial brilliance of Arizal or the countless cinematic gems starring by Barry Prima, Indonesian action cinema is most commonly synonymous with Gareth Evans’ The Raid series. Despite his humble Welsh beginnings, the popularity of Evans’ high octane thrill rides have been vital in putting Indonesian genre cinema on the international map in recent times – and for creating a crossover star in Iko Uwais, whose Hollywood transition recently came courtesy of a cameo appearance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) no less. Following in the footsteps of the likes of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Tony Jaa and Donnie Yen, Uwais is the latest foreign ass-kicking sensation to capture the hearts of action aficionados in the west. Currently, he’s arguably the greatest action star of his generation, and Headshot is a visceral, hard-hitting continuation of his ascent towards the top of the holy mountain of martial arts icons.
Gareth Evans may have enjoyed the most success and acclaim with his bloody-knuckled, bone-crunching yarns from the Archipelago, but the wonderfully demented pairing of the country’s own Mo Brothers (Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto) have been carrying the flag in their own right for the better part of a decade; 2009s Rumah Dara (aka Macabre) cooked up a cannibalistic treat, while 2014s Killers saw them deliver an unsettling psychological thriller about serial murderers embroiled in a disturbing game of one-upmanship; both movies have since found their place among horror faithful’s overseas and solidified the duo’s status as a force to be reckoned with. Additionally, they would contribute the deranged “L is for Libido’’ segment to The ABCs of Death (2013) anthology, while Tjahjanto would team up with the aforementioned Evans for the impressive V/HS/2 (2013) segment “Safe Haven.’’
Their latest effort, Headshot, is a gung-ho treat – and, quite frankly, their best feature to date. The story revolves around Ishmael (Uwais), a man who wakes up in hospital after he’s found washed up on a beach with no memory of who he is or how he got there. He is cared for by med student Ailin (Chelsea Islan) and as he heals, a sweet relationship forms between the pair. But his past comes back to haunt him when terrorist Mr. Lee (Sunny Pang), over a pile of slaughtered corpses, escapes from prison to reclaim his throne as kingpin of crime and “Father of hell.’’ When Aileen gets abducted by Lee’s syndicate and taken to their compound, Ishmael must face his dark past and exact his retribution.
Headshot will undoubtedly draw comparisons to The Raid as it’s spearheaded by Iko Uwais, co-stars Julie Estelle (The Raid 2) and features a plotline which allows for plenty of martial arts mayhem and visceral, balls-to-the-wall action set pieces to occur – limbs snap, bullets fly, blood squirts and chaos ensues with gleeful excessiveness. There is nothing highly original about Headshot; however, the Mo Brothers have crafted a violently vigorous trip that will grab viewers by the jaw and drag them through the wringer. The plot is simple, but the execution is stylish, gritty and bold. Plus, it’s so gratuitous and unrestrained when it comes to its bloodletting that every action junkie’s craving for carnage should be more than satiated. Why dispose of a foe with one bullet when you can flood their body with a barrage? Why settle for breaking a nose when you can shatter an entire face with your bare fists? Headshot has no problem indulging in its own violent impulses, and it’s all the better for it.
Amidst the whirlwind of bullets, broken bones and melee attacks, there is a sappy love story that works surprisingly well. The relationship between Ishmael and Ailin is just too sweet not to feel sweetened by, and it’d take a real heart of stone to not root for their happily-ever-after. Sure, you might find yourself applauding during the scene where a bus load of innocent people is gunned down like sitting ducks just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, but when it comes to Ailin and Ishmael, you want that fairytale ending. However, in a film this sinister made by filmmakers who have a history of pummeling audiences with bleakness and sadistic storytelling, there’s no telling what will happen until the closing moments.
Without going into spoilers, Headshot briefly touches on the child kidnapping syndicates that have scared Indonesian parents for years. It is estimated that 80% of the country’s kidnapped children are abducted by sex trafficking organisations, usually focusing on those from impoverished areas where security is limited. UNICEF estimates that ‘100,000 Indonesian children are trafficked overseas and domestically every year, with 40,000 to 70,000 of them becoming victims of sexual exploitation.’ Additionally, regions such as Bali and Riau are popular hot spots for child sex tourists (US Department of State). There is a subplot in Headshot related to the abduction of children for nefarious deeds, and how the relationships with their captors develop over time. However, it’s not quite as grim as sex trafficking, though it does also allude to a real-life horror involving children raised for the purposes of criminal activity. There isn’t any deep social commentary under the surface here, but these elements do remind us of the terrible fates of children abroad who are forced into trafficking and terrorism.
More than anything, Headshot is just an excuse to unleash a juggernaut of carnage and take no prisoners. It’s Bourne meets The Raid, rooted in mean spirited exploitation, with just enough tenderness to make you care about the fates of the only characters who aren’t despicably vile to some degree, which is under a handful. Here we have an action movie where the heroes are sympathetic and the villains are deliciously deviant scumbags. It’s not quite on par with The Raid in terms of dynamic action – but then again, not many films in recent memory are. However, it is still creative with its action sequences and is uncompromisingly savage, which makes it essential viewing for those who want to see more blood and bite in their fight flicks.
UNICEF, Factsheet On Commercial Sexual Exploitation and Trafficking of Children, https://www.unicef.org/indonesia/Factsheet_CSEC_trafficking_Indonesia.pdf, Accessed 23 February 2017.
The U.S. Department of States, 2016 Monitor Trafficking in Persons Report, 2016, https://www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/countries/2016/258785.htm, Accessed 23 February 2017.