A tired story doesn’t drag down ‘Headshot’s’ ferocious spectacle

You don’t need to read this review to know what to expect from “Headshot,” a go-for-broke martial arts romp from Indonesia. It’s right there in the title and, like the title, subtlety isn’t in the movie’s vocabulary. This is a movie that won’t settle for one shot to the head, though. No. How about 15 shots? 20? The most I counted was 40 for one henchman. In fact, “Headshot” pushes itself in every aspect, for better or worse.

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Photo credit: Twitter, @TheMoBrothers

It’s mostly for the better. The worse is the story. A brutal convict named Mr. Lee (Sunny Pang) escapes from prison, leaving enough bodies behind him to fill a “John Wick” movie. Soon after, a nameless man (Iko Uwais) washes up on a kindly fisherman’s beach. The man takes him to the hospital where lies in a coma for two months with the smitten Dr. Ailin (Chelsea Islan) looking after him. After he wakes up, Mr. Lee, for reasons unknown, kidnaps Ailin and wants the man, who he calls Abdi, dead.

It’s your typical damsel-in-distress story, unaided by Uwais and Islan’s lackluster chemistry. Narratively, “Headshot” shines in exploring the darker side of humanity. With a gritty-as-hell visual style and raw fight scenes, the movie can be borderline unpleasant. It revels in the world’s underbelly, and nowhere is this more apparent than in Sunny Pang’s performance as Mr. Lee.

No one expects good dramatic acting in a martial arts movie. If it’s there, it raises the whole. If it isn’t, the fight scenes can pick up the slack. “Headshot” has a little bit of both. Iko Uwais is one of the best martial artists working right now, but his gravitas is purely physical. He doesn’t inspire much feeling beyond “Oh my god, did you see that?” Sunny Pang, on the other hand, has physical and dramatic prowess. His Mr. Lee is like a soccer dad gone rogue, all smiles and quiet amusement when he’s not stabbing necks with chopsticks.

The movie builds to his final confrontation with Abdi, and it’s a doozy. What the Mo Brothers do with it, however, is unexpected. Over the movie’s nearly two hour running time, they simplify the setting, removing all mise-en-scene so, by the end, it’s as simple as you can get. Here, the movie realizes its potential by returning to the basics: no guns, no knives, just two consummate martial artists battling it out in one room. It’s excessive all the same, but “Headshot” wouldn’t have it any other way.