Headshot is a direct consequence of two distinct elements: the growing, exciting Indonesian film industry and the existence of The Raid and its even better sequel.
Exploding onto Western screens in 2011, The Raid: Redemption was both a career launching picture for star Iko Uwais and director Gareth Evans, but felt like an adrenaline-fuelled shot in the arm to a genre which, if not stale, perhaps needed the window opening. Evans and Uwais essentially trademarked the use on screen of Pencak Silat, a traditional Indonesian martial art which, according to Wikipedia, is “a full-body fighting form incorporating strikes, grappling and throwing in addition to weaponry.” In short, every part of the body is both susceptible to and used for, attack. This made The Raid a wanton fury of intense close-quarter combat sequences, packed into a tight, contained, building under siege story.
In continuing the narrative, after The Raid’s surprise hailing as a modern action classic by Western audiences excited for more, Evans with The Raid 2 switched gears to deliver what to many is considered ‘The Godfather of action movies’. Perhaps praise too high, but as with any great sequel it takes the composite blocks and builds on them, with shades of Michael Mann crime world complexity until Uwais is let completely off the chain for a barnstorming final succession of action sequences as his character Rama, quite literally, fights big boss after big boss in a video-game stylee. It’s as bravura as it is ridiculous, but both The Raid movies made their mark on modern action cinema and cemented Indonesia as a player to rival Hong Kong when it comes to slick, thrilling action pictures.
Partly due to sadly low box office for The Raid 2 and Gareth Evans moving back to the UK, The Raid 3—mooted at the time—seems an unlikely prospect. Headshot, its fair to say, fills that silat-sized hole nicely, feeling in many respects much like a companion piece to those two critically acclaimed movies. Not just because Uwais stars once again, either, though that arguably helps its case. What Headshot does is take lessons learned in The Raid 2 of how to balance furious action stylistics with a level of dramatic gravitas that oddly feels indebted to Tarantino in places; Uwais’ Ishmael begins as an amnesiac who, in flashes, begins to remember the cadre of fellow gangsters and assassins who betrayed and left him for dead. There’s more than a hint of Kill Bill’s The Bride to his story.
Co-directors Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel, known more colloquially as the ‘Mo Brothers’, were entering new territory nonetheless with Headshot, better known for thrillers such as 2014’s dark psychological piece Killers or 2009’s horror Macabre. This was the first action movie they directed and while they do a frequently sublime job of directing the violent theatrics, you can sense their grounding in tension and drama through the script. Uwais is more than capable of handling the Silat fight choreography himself, which he did on set incidentally, but the Mo Brothers maintain a handle on Ishmael’s story and the violent level of personal retribution he takes on his journey toward the truth.
Ostensibly, behind the hard hitting stylistics, Headshot is a story about family, and the sins of the past. In another nod to Western cinema, Sunny Pang’s villain Lee has a level of Keyser Soze about him, a shade of the mythic; a gangster whose name strikes fear even in other crime lords, we first see Lee escape prison in a brutal opening escape (one where he sacrifices all the other prisoners he helps free for his own survival) and subsequently realises not only are their challengers to his empire but the ghost in Ishmael he thought those around him had dealt with, leaving him washed up for dead on a beach with a bullet in his head, is returning to haunt him. The family aspect—and here be spoilers—lies in the fact Ishmael is his son.
You can’t really talk about Headshot without discussing this as, honestly, its crucial to the journey Ishmael undertakes, even if its a revelation saved for at least halfway in. Lee was willing to sacrifice his son to protect the darker secret of how he essentially bred and trained children to act as his protective army, something Ishmael simply couldn’t deal with. This comes into greater focus in Ishmael’s central bond with kindly nurse Ailin (Chelsea Islan), who inevitably becomes a victim of danger when the net begins to tighten around Ishmael; as various people help him remember the dark, dangerous past Ishmael was almost killed for, he comes to realise a better, clearer future exists.
The Mo Brothers are concerned in their story with exorcising demons and that, ultimately, is what Ishmael is forced to do. This is where the Kill Bill comparisons become even more acute, as Ishmael does battle with each of Lee’s ‘children’ (the collective group who shot him, even though only one person pulled the trigger) as he strives to reach the man himself, especially when Ailin is captured as leverage. Neatly, and this is where the combat level of detail comes nicely into play, each of the main fighting characters in Headshot have their own fighting style depending on the background of the actor – be it silat, wushu or simply close quarter combat. It allows the Mo Brothers to play different angles on the continued avalanche of brutal sequences Ishmael goes through.
Aside from a tight, impactful final battle (inevitably) with Lee, perhaps the most powerful and fascinating fight takes place between Ishmael and Rika (Julie Estelle) on a sandy beach. Rika is the fierce female fighter who pulled the trigger and serves as an emotional counterpoint to Ishmael’s bond with Ailin; knowing him by his birth name Abdi, Rika sees him as the man he was, rather than Ishmael who he now seeks to be. Along with being one of the best executed sequences of combat, it’s also riven with personal dramatic power. If Ishmael is The Bride, then Rika is definitely his Elle Driver.
Headshot manages to compliment the tricks of the Indonesian action film trade The Raid and its sequel gave us, without necessarily delivering anything new. The Mo Brothers have a clear, focused story and they manage to execute it well, with Iko Uwais holding the centre as strongly as he did in The Raid films with a similar balance of underdog action prowess and earnest everyman. It’s not as iconic as The Raid but it continues to prove some of the most exciting action cinema is taking place these days in Indonesia, cinema which equally can hold a subtext and theme behind some incredibly well directed and blocked, brutal sequences.
Say your prayers after Headshot. You never know, maybe one day we’ll get a third Raid after all…