December 9, 2016
” Ironically, like the title it carries, this movie shoots plenty of fatigue ammunition to my head that makes me simply forget about its existence on my way home from the theater.”
Movie is about emotional experience and sensation either it’s sad, anxious, fear, flinch or cheer. Once a movie succeeds in delivering a certain emotional experience or sensation to its audiences, it is said that a movie has set the bar for next movies to come to achieve.
A successful action movie delivers a specific sensation that will pump up your adrenaline and get you at the edge of your seat, screaming or having your hands tightly squeezed when you’re watching your favorite heroes fighting against some bad guys in a dead or alive battle on the screen. An effective action movie doesn’t necessarily require a drama or abundant of dialogues since the action choreography speaks for itself. A very good one offers you some subtexts within its action narrative that will make you care about the characters, the story or the world in it even more.
In the wake of modern action movies circa John Woo era, there are plenty action movies that have successfully set the new bar. Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, for instance, not only gives you a new paradigm of stylistic actions sequence (the hammer fighting in the alley, remember?), but it also has a depth self-existence psychological subtext. Jason Bourne Trilogy introduces the new approach in using the shaky-camera technique for shooting action sequences wrapped in a global political conflict. Even the no-brainer ones like The Raid, South Korea’s Man from Nowhere and John Wick have a human relationship and brotherhood sub-texts within their action narratives, aside from their visual aesthetics and inventive action choreographies. Those movies not only use the action and violence as their language but also give us some nuances.
So it’s understandable, then, if there’s a new action movie appears in cinemas, a common question pops up, “Could it pass –or at least achieve- the bar those aforementioned movies have achieved?”.
Headhshot, the new action movie by the dynamic duo Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stanboel, collectively well-known as Mo Brothers (Rumah Dara, Killers) who build their reputation as the fresh blood in the world of the slasher-genre movie, seems to be the new hope for genre aficionados to seeing the new gem of action. The trailers looked good and promising. But the final result? Unfortunately, it’s a let-down.
The screenplay, written by Timo Tjahjanto himself, works with the pitch : Bourne Identity with The Raid-esque style of action in blue and red neon lights visual ala John Wick meets Wong Kar Wai’s, Park Chan-wook’s and Takeshi Kitano’s aesthetic. Headshot follows the story of a character (played by Iko Uwais, The Raid), whom we see lying in a hospital bed in a coma. He was taken by local villagers to a small local hospital set in a presumably small island of pseudo-Indonesia and taken care by a beautiful kind-spirited doctor, Ailin (played here by a talented young Indonesian actress, Chelsea Islan). Islan tries to inject an optimism aura to her character that kinda reminds me of female characters in Japanese comic books. Her character is naïve, innocent, and hopeful, some qualities you can see in her sparkling eyes. In order to add some gravitas (or more likely a gimmick) to justify her character as a young intellectual, the script has Ailin reading Herman Melville’s Moby Dick.
We know nothing about Uwais’s character, neither does Ailin. After two months lying in bed without any physical response, he suddenly awakes and reacts to some kind of bad memories from his past. It turns out that the young man suffers retrograde amnesia which means he can’t remember anything: who he is, what’s his name, or what makes him severely wounded. To make interaction easier, Ailin then calls him as Ishmael after the main protagonist in Moby Dick. See, there’s a connection here since both Uwais’s character and Moby Dick’s Ishmael share the same fate, banished and stranded in the middle of nowhere. At least that what Ailin is thinking.
A retrograde amnesic character and a pretty young woman seem to be a good scenario for developing a romance story. We’ve seen it many times before and we see it again in Headshot. It will be succeeded if this movie puts some inventive ways in exploring how Uwais’ character finds his memory back with the help of Ailin as a trained doctor. However, the amnesia, Ailin’s profession, and Moby Dick reference only serve as a faux metaphor and plot points to justify the action of redemption. We’re not invested enough to believe their interaction. Uwais, as good as he is as the action star, not actually a dramatic actor with a wide range of emotional displays to attract our empathy and his on-screen interaction with Islan, who’s poorly directed here, getting worse with lines of dialogue in formal Bahasa Indonesia that make them feels like reading than speaking. Hence, as the story goes and the mysteries surrounding Ishmael’s identity are finally revealed, we will hardly remember that Ailin is a doctor. It’s because she’s just another mistress in damsel.
As a good mistress in damsel as Ailin is, the film needs a sub-plot to put her into that position. Ailin decides to go back to Jakarta and tries to persuade Ishmael to come along with her. Her reason is for Ishmael to have a better medical treatment due to the fact that his photo-roentgen shows there’s a bullet in his skull and it needs to be removed as soon as possible. But Ishmael insists that he needs to stay and find out his true identity. He’s unsure if he’s a bad guy or the good one and he doesn’t want Ailin get in troubles.
Tragically, while on her bus trip, members of gangster ambush the bus, kill all the passengers and kidnap Ailin in a moment that reminds me of Denis Villeneueve’s Incendies. Later, we find out that the gangster work for Lee (played by charismatic Singaporean actor, Sunny Pang) who’s previously in the opening sequence showed as the intellectual actor behind the brutal gunshots prison break.
The plot then follows the bloody and sadistic bone-crushing journey of Ishmael to rescue Ailin, to find out his true identity and the connection between him and Lee.
At first, the choice of using amnesia as the framing device in Headshot seems to be a good and smart move. We, as the audience, are put into the blank page about what actually happens, just like the circumstances Ishmael and Ailin are facing, with series of flashback serve as the hints to Ishmael’s past. But as the revelation unwrapped, it is more just a gimmick than a clever storytelling and here’s the problem, there’s no really something called process in the way Headshot peeling the mystery. Tjahjanto’s screenplay eventually and gradually introduces the villains bottom-up and the cruel man-eat-man environment in the gangster’s world, before the final showdown. The villains in Headshot, just like another modern action movies before it, are one-dimensional characters defined by their physical gestures or weaponry. There’s nothing wrong with it actually as long as the direction hits the spot and those characters are given enough distinctive qualities. But sadly, Headshot creates its characters so much on the template without really gives them enough room to evolve or to distinguish themselves characteristically. I know it sounds unfair comparing this move to The Raid (especially The Raid 2), but the comparison is inevitable since this movie also features a group of ready-to-kill baddies with relentlessly straight face, shout-out-loud talking voice (only to amplify the already disquiet quality of this movie), and exaggerated I’m-the-bad-guy comical attitudes, with nothing fresh twist in characteristic (and duly noted that this movie shares the same leading man and his reunion with that baseball-bat-guy and hammer-girl with similar archetype, except with a few lines). The movie tries to amuse us with one-liners and misbehavior gags from minor villains in which some of them work but mostly fall flat. It’s because we already know the formula and when it’s coming.
As for the predictable gags, so does the action choreography. Iko Uwais and his team in this movie work sans his long-collaborator, Yayan Ruhyan. But the result is reminiscent of what we’ve seen before. The actions aren’t memorable nor inventive enough to make our jaws dropped. And the editing doesn’t help much either. There are numerous times when the editing feels not fluid in stitching scenes and they make me aware that the transition between scenes is functioned to apply practical effects, like the burned-face or sharp objects cut through one’s body. Actions need intensity and Headshot lacks of it.
The cinematography, directed by Yunus Pasolang, infuses enough beauty in Headshot, like in one (or two) particular moment(s) when he shoots the smoke stylistically. Pasolang frequently shots in symmetrical composition and combines it with frenetic camera movements. There’s a time his camera follows the action sequence in 360 degrees around a fistfight and it’s supposed to intensify the tension, but ends up being aimless due to uninspired action choreography and editing, in spite of interesting electro and Japanese-influenced music arranged by duo Fajar Yuskemal and Aria Prayogi (both of them also worked in The Raid series).
If I have to mention the most valuable player in Headshot, the honor goes to Sunny Pang. As the devilish character, Pang maintains his performance with enough nuance and for that, he is able to be harmless and deadly at the same time. His final showdown with Uwais’ character also deserves a credit. Here is the action sequence that actually works in this movie as the fight becomes sort of communication and emotional connection between two characters. Although it isn’t satisfying enough to convey the subtext within the vicissitudes conflict of loyalty and betrayal.
The title of Headshot refers to the bullets aimed at someone’s head, in this movie, it means literally or figuratively for the series of shocks it tries to offer. Alas, it doesn’t work as it’s supposed to. Ironically, like the title it carries, this movie shoots plenty of fatigue ammunitions to my head that makes me simply forget about its existence on my way home from the theater. And then I find myself amnesia.
Reviewed at Blok M Square XXI on December 8, 2016
Running time : 118 minutes
A Screenplay Infinite Films presentation in association with Surya Citra Media, Amuse and Nikkatsu Corporation.
International sales : XYZ Films, Los Angeles.
Executive producers : Sutanto Hartono, Haruhiko Miyano, Kenji Ishibashi
Producers : Mike Wiluan, Sukhdev Singh, Wicky V. Olindo, Shinjiro Nishimuro
Associate producers : Daiwanne P. Ralie, Jonathan Satyabudi
Production supervisor : John Radel, ACS
Directors : Timo T. Tjahjanto, Kimo Stanboel (Mo Brothers)
Story and screenplay : Timo T. Tjahjanto
Director of photography : Yunus Pasolang
Editor : Arifin Cuunk
Production designer : Iqbal Marjono
Music and sound design : Fajar Yuskemal, Aria Prayogi
Visual effect : Andi Novianto
Action choreography : Uwais team
Costume : Aldie Harra
Casts : Iko Uwais, Chelsea Islan, Sunny Pang, Julie Estelle, Very Tri Yulisman, Yayu Unru
Dialogues in Bahasa Indonesia and English.