Those familiar with the films of The Mo Brothers (a.k.a. Timo Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel) know to expect over-the-top violence and outrageous set pieces, but they might be surprised at the sentimentality that is also on display in the pair’s latest offering. At the heart of Headshot are two questions: do your memories make you who you are? And can you overcome your past?
There are two storylines running concurrently in Headshot. One is about a criminal overlord named Mr. Lee (Sunny Pang) who escapes from prison in an opening segment that is brilliantly executed through impeccable framing, editing, and sound design, not to mention beautifully choreographed action sequences. The second storyline concerns a man in a coma who lies in a hospital room, watched over by a patient young doctor named Ailin (Chelsea Islan) who reads Melville’s Moby Dick while she waits for him to wake up. Although patient has no identity, Ailin, inspired by the novel, names him Ishmael. She doesn’t yet know how significant that name will be.
It doesn’t take long for us to figure out that these two narrative threads are actually woven together. Ishmael is actually named Abdi (and is played by Iko Uwais) and he has a past history with Lee. The reveal comes slowly and, amazingly enough, plays out through action sequences, in another of the Mo Brothers’ distinctively original flourishes. Ishmael may not remember that he’s actually Abdi, but he certainly does know how to fight.
The action in Headshot is breathtaking. This is due to the prodigious talents of both Uwais (The Raid, The Raid: Redemption) and the directing team of the Mo Brothers and their cinematographer Yunus Pasolang. The camera moves either impossibly fast or slow, depending on what’s happening, and the pacing is superb. There are too many great set pieces to count, but the police station fight and the beach fight are both outstanding. True to their horror roots, however, the Mo Brothers do not hesitate to show a lot of blood, which should please genre fans immensely.
With all that said, Headshot is still a touching film. The friendship between Ailin and Ishmael/Abdi is believable and compelling—as is the eventual full reveal about Abdi’s past—and instead of derailing the action scenes, it contributes to the exhilarating pacing of the film as well as providing its emotional core.
Fajar Yuskemal, who created the scores for The Raid: Redemption, the Mo Brothers’ 2014 film Killers, as well as their V/H/S 2 and ABCs of Death installments, does a fantastic job of matching the adrenaline of the action scenes but also holding back when necessary. His score is just as much a part of the movie as any of the cast members.
With Headshot, The Mo Brothers seem poised to join the ranks of long standing Asian action film auteurs. This is a film that will charm you even as you wince at the fight scenes.
Headshot premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, September 9.