For decades it was Hong Kong that dominated the martial arts movie scene. From the genre’s beginnings, to the vast catalogue of the Shaw Brothers studio, to the success of Golden Harvest in the 80’s and 90’s, Hong Kong led the way in the genre and few other areas/countries managed to capture their success or level of quality. Hollywood had long tried, and although there are some great American action films, their depiction of martial arts has rarely felt as convincing or spectacular. As the new millennium moved on though, a boom in martial arts cinema caused by the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix eventually led to Hong Kong’s action output growing tired. Too many releases tried to copy the formula of those hugely successful titles, but there was rarely the talent or money behind them to achieve their level of quality. As such, the Hong Kong martial arts scene has dried up somewhat, at least in terms of finding critical or commercial success overseas, bar one or two exceptions (the Ip Man films did quite well and have a lot of fans).
With Hong Kong’s martial arts crown slipping, one country has made a few great steps forward to snatch it from them, or rather leap through the air, shatter their skull and wrench the crown from their twitching, dying body. That country is Indonesia. They’ve been making action movies for a long time, but nothing all that notable until a Welsh director named Gareth Evans made his sophomore film there, Merantau (a.k.a. Merantau Warrior) alongside native Indonesian actor/action choreographer Iko Uwais. That film wasn’t a huge success, but it turned a few heads amongst action fans and paved the way for Evans and Uwais’ follow up, The Raid. That martial arts masterpiece blew the doors open with its brutal, intense action sequences and taut, visceral direction. Evans and Uwais returned three years later with The Raid 2, which many felt managed to improve on the first, by upping the scale and adding a more elaborate plot. Personally I slightly prefer the first film, but The Raid 2 is still undoubtedly one of the finest action films of the last twenty years, if not ever.
Eager to show he’s equally as important to that illustrious pair of films than Evans after his frustratingly wasted cameo in The Force Awakens, Uwais joins the ‘Mo Brothers’ (Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto) for Headshot. Like in the Raid films, Uwais acts and choreographs the action with his Uwais Team and certainly proves his worth, as Headshot is one hell of a badass martial arts movie.
The film begins with two seemingly disparate storylines. One sees psychotic crime lord Lee (Sunny Pang) escape from prison in a blood soaked opening sequence and another finds a near-dead man (Uwais) wash up on a beach. As Lee gets on with business, the mysterious man is in a coma in hospital, looked after by the attractive young doctor, Ailin (Chelsea Islan). He soon comes to, but has amnesia, so Ailin, who names him Ishmael, helps him discover his true identity. As they do, and as Lee is clearly troubled when he hears about someone being found alive on the beach, we learn that the two were closer than you’d expect and perhaps Ishmael isn’t the nice young man Ailin thinks he is. He certainly seems to know how to handle himself when Lee sends his team of cold-hearted, tough as nails goons to get him.
It’s a fairly straightforward plot with several cliches along the way (amnesia is hardly an original concept and we get the typical kidnapped girlfriend & kid finale), but having the hero possibly be a former villain is a nice touch and allows for some fights with more emotional complexity than usual.
I didn’t put this on to mull over the emotions of its characters though. I came for the action and on that front I was more than satisfied. Like in the Raid films, the fight scenes are full impact, incredibly intense and wincingly gory. There are plenty of them too, with very little down time in between set pieces. It can get pretty grisly, which might put off some viewers, but the gore helped add a gritty power to the action in my eyes.
Although the direction doesn’t quite have Evans’ flair, the Mo Brothers craft a film that’s stylish without distracting from the action and they handle the set pieces with a tremendous amount of energy. The camera is a little unnecessarily shaky at times, but takes are largely long and you can always follow what’s happening on screen.
All in all it’s another highly kinetic, brutal and thrilling action spectacular from Indonesia that can confidently hold its own against the Raid films. Like them, the violence might be a bit too unpleasant for all tastes, but if you’ve got the stomach for it, you’re in for a real treat. Here’s to seeing what else Uwais and the Indonesian action movie scene have in store for us.
Headshot is out on 5th June on Blu-Ray and DVD in the UK, released by Arrow Films. I saw the Blu-Ray version and the picture and sound quality was excellent. There are no notable special features included unfortunately.