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-[Film Reviews]-, Oceanian Cinema

‘Headshot’ (2016): The Expansion of Indonesian Action Cinema

Directed by: Kimo Stamboel, Timo Tjahjanto

Produced by: Shinjiro Nishimura, Wicky V. Olindo, John Radel, Mike Wiluan || Screenplay by: Timo Tjahjanto || Starring: Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle, Chelsea Islan, David Hendrawan, Zack Lee, Sunny Pang, Very Tri Yulisman, Bront Palarae, Yayu Unru, Ario Bayu

Music by: Aria Prayogi, Fajar Yuskemal || Cinematography: Yunus Pasolang || Edited by: Arifin Cu’unk || Country: Indonesia || Language: Indonesian

Running Time: 118 minutes

Though it hasn’t catapulted him to international stardom, the burgeoning Raid franchise (2011, 2014) has won writer-director Gareth Evans international respect among both film critics and action cinephiles. It remains to be seen whether the Welshman will complete a third chapter in his relentless, uncompromising action saga, but even if 2014’s Berandal is the last collaboration between Evans and rising star Iko Uwais, The Raid films have succeeded in popularizing both Pencak Silat (a Javanese form of the Southeast Asian martial art native to Indonesia and nearby countries) and Indonesian filmmaking within world cinema. Much like with Korean cinema at the start of the new millennium, the nation’s cinematic potential has been recognized, and they have only room for growth in the visual arts.

Top: Rebellious inmates (left) and prison guards (right) shoot it out in the film’s memorable opener. Middle: Chelsea Islan (center right) braces for attack while Iko Uwais (center left) engages with opponents. Note the use of foreground and background focus. Bottom: Antagonist Sunny Pang takes a stand against his former protege.

A duo of filmmakers who have benefited from the popularity of The Raid films and subsequent rise in attention to Indonesian cinema are Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto, collectively referred to as The Mo Brothers. Their first international hit was Killers (2014), a gruesome, disturbing contemplation on humanity’s violent ways and fascination with all things macabre; Headshot, starring Uwais and Berandal co-stars Julie Estelle, Zack Lee, and Very Tri Yulisman, is their take on Evans-style cinematic ultraviolence, showcasing numerous Silat forms and weaponry amidst a generic action-packed tale of revenge, memory loss, and tormented childhoods. Unlike The Raid films, Headshot sticks to standard action filmmaking formula in having the narrative and characterizations serve as scaffolding to support the action sequences, but also shows more willingness to experiment with various color palettes, creative locations, firearm combat, and foreground/background compositions. Headshot, in other words, plays it safer from a screenplay perspective, but is just as, if not more creative from a cinematographic standpoint.

The Mo Brothers open with an incredible prison-break sequence involving principal villain Sunny Pang, which sets the tone for the rest of the story. Though Headshot’s overall structural pacing could use some work, the Mo Bros.’ scene by scene staging, rhythm, blocking, and use of music are excellent. The film oozes style through its lighting and use of shadows, almost in a neo-noir kind of way; there’s even a scene midway through the film where Uwais’ protagonist is held for questioning in a police station during a rainy night, where his interrogator peers through blinds that cast bars of shadow across his face in the most classical of noir images. In terms of tone, the Mo Bros. are more interested in the crime aspect of their action-crime drama hybrid.

Structurally speaking, however, their feature is a purebred action film, through and through. A weakness of the film, as I alluded to above, involves its predictable start-stop rhythm with its action set-pieces. That’s not to say the film lays down and dies whenever punches aren’t being thrown — as I also stated above, the film is always stylish and embroils itself in noir tropes and dramatic flair — but in terms of characterizations and development, most plot-points are progressed by violence. Action sequences move the story forward, so to speak, such that dialogue in between action scenes is expository in nature and most dramatic sequences are designed to build suspense for another fight sequence.

Sunny Pang is the film’s standout character, being charismatic in multiple languages and lending the story much needed personality beyond Uwais’ blank-slate protagonist and Chelsea Islan’s capable but generic female lead. Pang relishes his quasi-playful villain, taunting principal and supporting characters in between bouts of extreme violence while offering a plausible challenge to Uwais’ Silat mastery. As far as the story and screenplay are concerned, Pang is the biggest selling point.

Headshot’s major weaknesses are its length and repetitive structure. While its individual scenes are well composed and stylish, the film stretches beyond capacity at almost two hours long and at least one too many one-on-one fistfights. It’s nowhere as bloated as the overindulgent Berandal, but it’s not the relentless assault of the first Raid; plus, the Mo Bros. seem reluctant to choreograph too many fighters in any given hand-to-hand combat sequence, which feels odd given their creativity with combining firearm-based shootouts and fisticuffs. The low point of the movie is Uwais’ confrontation with Juilie Estelle’s redundant character, playing almost like a beat-for-beat repeat of a previous fight sequence with Very Tri Yulisman.

Iko Uwais (left) wields a paper-cutter against assailant and former Raid 2 costar, Zack Lee (right).

With all that said, Headshot is a welcome addition to the small but growing pantheon of ultraviolent Indonesian genre films. Uwais is not a talent to be wasted, his limited acting range notwithstanding, and both the nation’s vibrant tropical archipelago backdrop and stimulating native martial arts beg to be incorporated into modern digital filmmaking. Headshot doesn’t open the genre to a wider audience, but doubles down on everything Gareth Evans popularized with his cult classics, and that’s something every genre fan should support. There’s no mold being broken, but as the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Better execution of that unbroken formula, however? That is something this movie could have obliged…


SUMMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: The Mo Bros. crank up the grisly sound FX and don’t skimp on the blood squibs as Headshot’s stars punch, kick, shoot, and slice their way through a tropical crime drama that’s as visually stylish as it is structurally traditional. The violence is dynamic and versatile, while antagonist Sunny Pang is a standout — and multilingual — villain.

However… Headshot could stand to lose 15-25 minutes of filler and Julie Estelle’s entire character. The film’s bloated structure could’ve benefited from the relentless, breathless pacing of a Gareth Evans script (yes, that comparison is appropriate). Uwais still isn’t the best at emoting.

ON THE FENCE: Action junkies should eat their fill, though I would caution most others from jumping in unless they’re conditioned to modern Indonesian genre filmmaking.

? John Wick (2014, 2016, 2019) had way more head-shots. I mean that as in orders of magnitude more exploding heads. The producers couldn’t think of a better title?

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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