For Indonesian martial arts star Iko Uwais, The Raid was a career-defining role. Its near-plotless brutality led to it becoming a cult favorite, so when Uwais signed up for another ultraviolent action movie, comparisons were inevitable.
Directed by Indonesian filmmakers Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto, Headshot is a terrifically gory yet romantic tale of an amnesiac trying to escape his forgotten past. Uwais stars as Ishmael, a young man who is fished out of the ocean with no memory of his past life, and ends up being nursed back to health by a trainee doctor named Ailin (Chelsea Islan).
This will sound sacriligeous to some, but I actually preferred Headshot to The Raid. Ishmael’s tentative romance with Ailin gives the story some emotional depth to balance out all the limb-snapping horror, calling back to The Bourne Identity, an action classic that we tend to forget was also a love story. It’s a role that makes the most of Uwais’ boyish appearance and aura of vulnerability, a counterpoint to his career of playing unstoppable killing machines.
Headshot‘s lead villain is the crime boss Lee (Sunny Pang), an abusive despot who raised a gang of kids to become lethal martial artists. Ishmael was among them, and when he escapes and loses his memory, Lee and his other “children” must track Ishmael down to wreak their revenge. This sets up an interesting explanation for an issue that action movies often ignore: How does the villain command such loyalty from his followers? In Headshot, the answer is obvious. Lee brainwashed and tormented his adopted children, and Ishmael is the first to break free.
I saw Headshot with a Glasgow Film Festival audience of fans who appreciated the humor of the film’s gory punchlines, but this level of violence is an acquired taste. In a series of inventive fight sequences, Ishmael and his enemies utilize traditional and improvised weapons to tear each other apart, showcasing the cast’s martial arts expertise—and a great deal of fake blood. The main goal is to display murder as a kind of dance, reveling in characters being shredded by bullets or destroyed by a well-placed punch. The pacing is a little disjointed and the runtime could have been cut by 10 minutes or so, but there’s no denying the talent of Headshot‘s fight choreographers.
Fans of The Raid (and let’s face it, that’s Headshot‘s target audience) may see the plot as an unnecessary hindrance, but I’d argue that Ishmael and Ailin’s love story is a welcome addition to Iko Uwais’ evolution as a performer. We already know that he’s a brilliant martial artist, and Headshot delivers as many tense and vicious fight scenes as you’d hope. But unrelenting horror can get boring, and Ishmael’s sensitivity is what makes you root for him. The disarmingly cheesy romance subplot just makes the violence more effective when it arrives, and sets an interesting precedent for Uwais as an action star.
Headshot‘s U.S. release date is March 1.