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Review: A bloody, poetic homage to martial arts

Hans David Tampubolon
Hans David Tampubolon

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta | Tue, December 6, 2016 | 11:01 am
Review: A bloody, poetic homage to martial arts

Pummeling: Ishmael (Iko Uwais) and Tejo (David Hendrawan) fight each other and will not stop until one of them is dead. (Screenplay Infinite Films/File)

If you like profound stories and unique plots, prepare to be disappointed, because Headshot is a mix of the Bourne series and Quentin Tarantino’s epic assassin noir action comedy Kill Bill, which makes for a predictable storyline.

The story in Headshot centers on a mysterious man (Iko Uwais), whose life is hanging in the balance after he is shot in the head and washed ashore on a small island in a state of unconciousness.

Two months after being saved by a local fisherman from the shore, the mysterious man finds himself awake in a hospital under the care of Ailin (Chelsea Islan), a female doctor who has nicknamed him Ishmael, after a character from the Moby Dick novel she so loves.

Ishmael cannot remember anything from his past, including his real name, after he wakes up from his coma. However, not long after he and Ailin try to gather information on his past, they learn that they are about to face great danger from gangster kingpin Mr. Lee (Sunny Pang) and his soldiers.

It turns out that Ishmael was once one of Lee’s elite soldiers and was even chosen as the kingpin’s foster son. However, Ishmael, whose real name is Abdi, betrayed Lee, which led to Lee’s arrest.

Disgusted by the act of treachery, Lee, after escaping from prison, orders his other elite soldiers to assassinate his foster son. As it turns out, Ishmael survived the assassination attempt despite being shot in the head.

After hearing the news of a mysterious man with a headshot wound resurrected from a coma, Lee orders his men to find out if that man is Abdi, and if it is, to assassinate him at all costs.

Things get more personal for Ishmael as after each fight with Lee’s men, he gains another bit of knowledge about his past.

Ishmael eventually learns that Lee abducted him and the other elite soldiers — Rika (Julie Estelle), Tejo (David Hendrawan), Tano (Zack Lee) and Besi (Very Tri Yulisman) — when they were children, along with hundreds of other kids living on the island.

Femme fatale: Ishmael (Iko Uwais) points a gun at Rika (Julie Estelle), an assassin who used to be one of his comrades.(Screenplay Infinite Films/File)

All of these children were thrown into a deep well, in which they had to fight and turn to cannibalism in order to survive. Only five of them — Ishmael and four others — survived and became Lee’s relentless killing machine to safeguard his global drug and human trafficking business.

When Lee’s men kidnap Ailin in order to lure Ishmael to rescue her, the plot of Headshot becomes pretty straightforward, like the old-school action movies where there is usually an ass-kicking good guy punching, kicking and slamming his way through to save a damsel in distress.

The fact that around 90 percent of the narration in the 118-minute long Headshot is presented through one fight scene after another can be very polarizing. Some viewers might see Headshot as a meaningless bone-crunching fiesta, while others, who find their guilty pleasure in watching humans crush each other’s joints and skulls in an artistic way, will enjoy the film as an epic spectacle.

(Read also: Photo: Fighting for their supper)

It does not take long for Headshot to spill its first liter of blood. Minutes after the opening credit, a scene depicting Lee’s escape from prison already features graphic visualizations and imagery of people’s throats being slit wide open and bloodied bodies piled on top of one another following a loud gunshot slinging scene.

Iko, who starred in the critically acclaimed violent action movies The Raid and The Raid 2, brings the fighting spirit of those two movies to Headshot. In The Raid and The Raid 2, Iko worked with silat martial artist Yayan Ruhian in choreographing the fights and in Headshot, he expands on the kinetic fighting style developed in the previous two movies by his own unique approach.

For the trained eye, the fight scenes in Headshot feature a lot of fighting styles from both the eastern and western worlds.

In one scene, fans of the United States’ pro-wrestling shows can clearly see that Iko perfectly executes a wrestling finisher called ‘The Stunner’, made famous by legendary wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin. In another scene, Iko’s fight with a character named Besi, who uses an iron stick as his weapon of choice, seems like a perfect introduction to escrima martial arts developed by the indigenous people of the Philippines.

Iko does not only offer brutal violence in his fight choreography in Headshot, but also stories. Each punch, kick, evasion and slam has a story to tell, which makes the fights in Headshot, no matter how brutal they may be, feel poetic at the same time.

With the massive load of fight scenes and violence in Headshot, the characters’ depth and development are of secondary importance. However, the Mo brothers seem sensible enough to understand that in order for this kind of film to have a little chance of being remembered for more than just its fight scenes, it also needs a strong villain.

Such a strong villain is properly depicted by Sunny through Mr. Lee. From the heart-stopping introduction of Mr. Lee’s sadistic wit in the opening to his sickly calm yet intimidating demeanor in a scene in which he casually eats a fried noodle amid a brutal executions by his men of a rival gang boss, the film has done enough to depict the ultimate villain as a noteworthy final opponent for the main protagonist.

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