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Fantastic Fest 2016: “HEADSHOT” (Film Review)

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HEADSHOT starts with a bang– several, actually, as vicious gangster Lee stages a bloody prison break. Dozens of prison guards and prisoners alike are mowed down in a shootout, bones are broken, and copious amounts of blood are spilled. This all before the title ever hits the screen. It only gets better from there. The latest martial arts masterpiece out of a country that appears increasingly adept at creating them, HEADSHOT comes to us by way of Indonesian directors (and Fangoria favorites) Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto, better known as The Mo Brothers.

Action fans will of course recognize the movie’s star Iko Uwais from THE RAID films. Here, he plays a hospital patient who awakes from a coma with scars all over his body, bullet fragments in his head, and no memory. After picking the name Ishmael for himself, he befriends Doctor Ailin, who does her best to help him regain his memories. Ishmael has no recollection of why he was hospitalized in the first place. Unfortunately for our amnesiac hero (and his new friend), legendary crime boss and prison escapee Lee had marked him for death. When word gets back to Lee that one bullet to the head apparently wasn’t enough to kill Ishmael, he sends his gang of killers to finish the job.

It’s a simple set-up, and in the hands of a lesser team, could easily have failed to distinguish itself from countless direct-to-video action movies of recent years. However, Timo’s screenplay, and The Mo Brothers’ directing elevates an easy action premise to a work of blood-soaked art. Moments of genuine emotion punctuate the script, giving some of the later fights an emotional heft. The aesthetic is sleek, and oozes with style that’s reminiscent of gangster noir classics while at once feeling completely modern.

But of course, you come to a movie like HEADSHOT for the action. And goddamn, the action delivers in spades. The fights are flashy and beautifully choreographed, but never lose a raw, visceral feeling. Every movement feels deliberate, and every hit has weight. Strikes land with dull thuds or sickening crunches. Blood flows and splatters often, but always feels earned. Bare knuckles shatter, arms break, and every kill feels desperate.

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Something movies of this style often fail to establish is a sense of danger for the main character. When you have Iko Uwais playing 1 man as deadly as 100, it’s easy for him to feel invincible on screen. Every set-piece in the movie, however, has a sense of tension and urgency. No matter how skilled Ishmael is, he is fighting for his life and one misstep can end it. A lengthy, drag-out brawl in an office was a particular favorite of mine, with a fire extinguisher, a rotary phone, and a typewriter all featuring as weapons.

And I have to give a special nod to the final fight scene. Actor Sunny Pang plays Lee with a ferocious presence, looking like he may always be moments away from tearing someone’s head off with his bare hands. Coming from a Chinese Kung Fu martial arts background, Sunny brings a very different visual flourish to the choreography than we’ve seen in Team Uwais’ previous fight scenes. You’ll see moves that are visually familiar from the likes of classic Shaw Brothers fare, made here to look devastating in their efficacy (including a vicious tiger claw technique that rends flesh).

In this writer’s opinion, HEADSHOT deserves to be held up alongside THE RAID, in the canons of the modern martial arts classic. With Iko starring in a series of beautifully filmed and stunningly choreographed set-pieces, some amazing scenes from Very Tri Yulisman and Julie Estelle (who played Baseball Bat Man and Hammer Girl, respectively, in THE RAID 2), the stellar visuals from The Mo Brothers, and some of the bloodiest and craziest fights in memory, HEADSHOT may well be the best action movie of 2016.

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[Note: Sunny Pang, who plays Lee in the film, was kind enough to punch me before the film. He punches very, very hard, which you can see below]

About the author
Elijah Taylor
Elijah Taylor used to own a chain of video game stores in Denver, Colorado. Now he works with Laser Party, a poster printing collective, and travels the world, eating, fighting, and attending film festivals.
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