Toronto 2016 Review: HEADSHOT, When You Look Up No Holds Barred in the Dictionary

Editor, News; Toronto, Canada (@Mack_SAnarchy)
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Toronto 2016 Review: HEADSHOT, When You Look Up No Holds Barred in the Dictionary
Off the coast of Indonesia the body of man washes up on shore near a small village. As he lies comatose in a hospital a doctor from Jakarta, Ailin, looks after him. When he regains consciousness only fragments of his memory remain. Ailin dubs him Ishmael for the time being, after the novel Moby Dick that she was reading when she waited at his bedside. A bond begins to grow between the two. Elsewhere, gang boss Lee escapes from prison and regains his criminal empire with a handful of incredibly deadly killers at his side. Word gets to him that a body washed ashore and it may be someone that he has been looking for. 
In 2011 a little action film from Indonesia blew up the action cinema world and put its humble lead actor Iko Uwais on our radars from then until the end of time. After that came the equally successful and epic sequel three years later. Others from that small island nation have tried to stake a claim of their own but none have had the goods to attain the global reach that this series did. So one can be forgiven if they head into a screening of Headshot with those films in mind, and with Iko at the lead again have set up their viewing easel and are ready to paint this new film with the same brush. It is just that the Mo Brothers have not done that. They have gone right ahead, grabbed your bucket of paint and smashed it against the canvas.
Here is what the Mo Brothers have done with Headshot. Take an early scene from that film in 2011 where the police had tied up a resident of the apartment block and he was sitting at a small table. Remember? And as the cops were looking out the windows and to the door of the apartment this guy reaches under the table and draws out a machete that was wired underneath. It is excruciatingly slow and the shot ends just as he swings that blade towards the neck of a unsuspecting cop. That moment. That moment is where the Mo Brothers pick up from throughout their film. Not content to let our imaginations to fill in the blanks they spell it out for us. Violently. They will show you what that machete does when it meets that tender meat around your neck.  This is where their horror legacy pops in and screams hello. Loud, clear, and with very colorful language. Red to be exact. 
If you are familiar with the work of the Mo Brothers (Killers, Macabre and ABCs of Death) you know that tonally it has been nasty stuff. Scenes in Headshot like the prison break which frees our master villain right off the hop, or the wholesale slaughter of innocents that will set our hero's quest a rolling, may be difficult to watch. Maybe they even have you second guessing if what we are watching is an action film or perhaps it is a horror film after all. Hold up. Is this what we signed up for? 
What these scenes achieve is this, these are the bad guys, and they are the baddest mutherfuckers in all of Indonesia.  What their role is in Ishmael’s life will be unveiled later on but for now their actions propel him through a world of fast action and brutal violence that at times will leave you white-knuckled and gasping for air.   
I saw this on a friend’s status last night and asked for permission to share it with you because he perfectly summarizes what we were all thinking. And I agreed to do it like this…
"As a handsome and talented filmmaker friend said… ‘The Mo Bros film Headshot is half NC-17 Jackie Chan film and half Chang Cheh climax’”.
And he’s right. During the Q&A Timo talked about the influence that the Golden Age of Hong Kong cinema had on the story structure of Headshot and it fits. The old Heroic Bloodshed films from Woo and To. The Police Story series from Jackie Chan. All were loaded to the brim with action and style but they also never forgot to include that melodrama that their fans back home adored. We do not necessarily have to buy into the budding romance between Ishmael and Ailin but it has to be at least believable for it serves as the motivator in Ishmael’s quest when she is kidnapped by Lee’s henchmen. 
This story structure also brings out emotional performances from the leads Iko Uwais and Chelsea Islan.  Uwais also has to broaden his range like he never has before. As a burgeoning action superstar he will not asked do much more beyond what the Brothers have asked of him in Headshot but you get his frustration, his hurt and his emotions. 
The emotional keystone to all of this is Ishmael's relationship with Julie Estelle's character Rika, Lee's right hand woman. By the time Ishmael has finally uncovered his past and his connection to Lee's gang he also discovers Rika's role in all of this and that weighs heavy on him. The physical and emotional toil of Ishmael's journey will come to a head on a beach, facing off against the knife wielding Rika. Ishmael has not choice but to go through her to get to Lee. 
Estelle further cements herself as a femme fatale if not in international action cinema then at least within the Asian region. Now that Estelle no longer has pitch black sunglasses covering half her face like she did in The Raid 2 the mythos of Hammer Girl took a hit, but Estelle proves herself more than capable of picking up Uwais' fight choreography
As far as Chang Cheh is concerned? Well, he may have been single handedly responsible for depleting the Shaw Bros studios budget for fake blood during his time with them. His classic Kung Fu films were some of the most violent and bloody as he was influenced by directors the likes of Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. None of whom were slouches when it came to violence. 
The action in Headshot showcases Iko Uwais’ growth as an action choreographer.  There is no room for grace and grand gestures because what the Brothers have planned for us is gruesome and horrific violence. Sugarcoating is the thing that probably got lost in translation on its way to Indonesia. The climactic fight between Ishmael and Lee is the closest the film gets to showing that influence of early Shaw Bros films. Setting aside implements of destruction like guns and knives the two combatants opt for their lethal limbs instead. It becomes the classic showdown between the hero and the villain that we deserve as an audience after enduring so much brutal violence until then. 
The camera work changes up between static and dynamic, moving from the rig to handheld the moment the energy changes. For the most part the Brothers and their crew do an amazing job of capturing the action, moving within its lethal circle, but still allowing us to see what is happening amidst the sparring. There are times where it did get too close, lost and tangled with the movement, but careful planning and execution by the Brothers flows with the action and largely does not get left behind. 
When someone asks you what no holds barred action looks like you just point them in the direction of Headshot. Stand back and be prepared to pick up the pieces of their shattered souls.
Early on Headshot is a test of moral fortitude, but as the story progresses, characters are set, and motivations are clearer, it settles on its bloody course of action and carries it out with bombastic aplomb. It reminds everyone that you do not turn you back on Indonesia when talking about international action hotspots. 
They have machetes. 
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HeadshotIko UwaisJulie EstelleThe Mo Brotherstiff 2016Toronto 2016

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Around the Internet

arturoSeptember 10, 2016 3:15 PM

Headshot and My War are 2 films i'm dying to see, any idea when the film gets released throughout the UK?

Alex PeñaSeptember 10, 2016 3:29 PM

Well, I think that The Raid saga was violent too. Anyway, I have to watch that scenes you have mentioned to say if it's nasty enough or not (although I imagine they will be). I haven't watched any Mo Brothers work before because I hate horror films, so I hope they haven't confused both genres with Headshot.

Andrew S MackSeptember 10, 2016 7:12 PM

Think of it this way. When someone colors their hair and asks you what you think, you look and say, "You're roots are showing". This is a Mo Brother action film. It's not a straight horror. Not at all. There was a lot in The Raid, as violent as it was, that came with a suggestion, right? The Mo Brothers make it a statement. Instead of thinking 'ooh, I bet that guy dies from that wound you say, yep, dead as fuck'. For example, there is more arterial sputtering in this one, the violence is a shaaade more gruesome. All three films, violent, the Mo Brothers added more red. The opening act had a lot of folks second guessing. There is a bus scene and you're saying, 'whoa whoa whoa, easy fellas, calm down' after that though it settles into the pocket and is tremendously fun.

Alex PeñaSeptember 10, 2016 7:43 PM

hahaha it's been a clear and amusing explanation! Thank you so much for it. I think Gareth Evans made history with The Raid, so if Headshot looks similar to them (and by reading you I'm sure it's that way), I will love it. All I can do is to wait its release here in Spain. Best regards!

Unflinching_EyeSeptember 11, 2016 12:10 AM

What's MY WAR? I searched and couldn't find anything.

Ellington LassiterSeptember 11, 2016 3:32 AM

The Mo Brothers have a way of making violence truly challenging to the viewer. There's no clear delineation between what's justified and not. In "Killers", "Macabre", and "Safe Haven" you want the protagonists to fight back against these truly terrible people, but the violence the "heroes" inflict is so uncompromising that you subsequently question whether they've rightfully destroyed an irredeemable villain or incidentally exposed an extension of their own repressed darkness. It makes you assess your threshold for violence as a viewer, and what you consider a justified protagonist. It doesn't hurt at all that it's usually punctuated with some truly dark comedy.

arturoSeptember 11, 2016 4:18 AM
check it out, looks promising.

arturoSeptember 11, 2016 4:26 AM
Pessoa9September 11, 2016 4:54 AM

YES! ...looks promising.

Loren WillSeptember 11, 2016 5:55 PM

When can we see this film (the version you saw) before they start cutting on it.Is there a release date or digital date.
Love your review and based on that I want to see it now not later.

Todd BrownSeptember 11, 2016 5:58 PM

There will be no cutting for international release. The version shown here will be the version released everywhere.

Loren WillSeptember 11, 2016 6:01 PM

BTW has anyone seen Juara yet?

Daniel ParedesSeptember 11, 2016 9:06 PM

More info on The Night Comes for us please.

wabaliciousSeptember 12, 2016 2:21 PM

That looks excellent!

wabaliciousSeptember 12, 2016 2:24 PM

Am i the only one who thought The Raid was enormously overrated? You don't need to answer that, i'm pretty sure i'm in a tiny minority there, hahaha.

StuSeptember 12, 2016 10:02 PM

Nice review

Andrew S MackSeptember 13, 2016 8:56 AM

Whew. Passed the test. (fist pump) Seriously thanks. It underwent a couple revisions after posting. I blerg'd a couple details but the reviews roll out a lot better when the films really, truly inspire you.

Andrew S MackSeptember 13, 2016 8:58 AM

So, it was rhetorical then? Heh. It's okay to be in the minority. We're sure you have your own selection of films that you will defend to the death as well. Just have that list prepared before our paths cross so we know *not* to mention them and ignite your justified wrath.

Andrew S MackSeptember 13, 2016 9:05 AM

As far as I know the brothers have been given a blessing to proceed with this project that we began reporting on back in 2014. They did a soft announcement on Facebook a few days ago and mentioned it again during the Q&A on Friday night. I bet dollars to doughnuts that Todd knows all about it but cannot say a lick about it. XYZ is likely backing the project.

wabaliciousSeptember 13, 2016 1:08 PM

Hahahaha, thanks. It's a short list, as follows:
1) Hudson Hawk

I will defend it to the death, or at least until i get tired of saying "but it's great" in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Todd BrownSeptember 14, 2016 12:48 AM

Andrew is a clever man.

Timo, Kimo and Iko may or may not have left Toronto very quickly after the Headshot premiere to return to Jakarta and preparations on a film that may or may not be TNCFU.

Todd BrownSeptember 14, 2016 12:49 AM

Roger Ebert certainly didn't rate it. Heh. His review was HARSH.

wabaliciousSeptember 14, 2016 5:15 AM

Yeah, somehow i can't picture Mr Ebert watching The Raid, wolfing down popcorn and laughing uproariously at the crazy violence!

Daniel ParedesSeptember 14, 2016 7:35 PM

I may or may not be prepared for this barrage of awesomeness! Here's hoping Yayan Ruhian is still on board, god knows we need a rematch between him and Iko!

Saut SitumorangFebruary 2, 2017 12:38 PM

Indonesia "small island nation"?! Excuse me, where have you been?!

Todd BrownFebruary 2, 2017 12:51 PM

I'd say small in terms of international cinema profile. But definitely not in terms of population, no.

Saut SitumorangFebruary 2, 2017 1:17 PM

"In terms of international cinema profile", I agree with you. But the phrase "small island nation" in the reviewer's line I commented means "country" and "population". If only he knew that Indonesia is the largest archipelago (not just "island") in the world with more than 200 millions Iko Uwais living in it! 😄