Everything you need to know about “Headshot,” an Indonesian bloodbath that stars the same actor from “The Raid” and feels like it was cut together from that film’s deleted footage, can be gleaned from an early fight scene aboard a public bus that’s just been shot to pieces by a gang of vicious criminals.
Our hero, an amnesiac ass-kicker named Ishmael (Iko Uwais), doesn’t remember that he used to be a member of the same syndicate that he’s now trying to kill, hops on board and promptly begins to snap ligaments and gouge eyeballs. Directors Kimo Stamboel and Timo Tjahjanto make spectacular use of the confined area, and — as with all of the many, many death matches that are stretched across this saga — the sequence continues for so long that you forget how the characters actually got there.
So when Ishmael eventually tackles one of the enemy henchmen to the floor (bringing the camera along with him), it’s a minor shock to rediscover that the makeshift arena is absolutely littered with the bullet-ridden bodies of innocent civilians. In the hyper-violent “Headshot,” which helps to galvanize the recent flurry of Indonesian martial arts movies into a genuine cinematic movement, it’s not enough to dismember someone and then beat them to hell with their own severed limb. No, these impossibly well-executed brawls have to take place in a space that is made of bodies. The floors are carpeted in corpses — fresh victims are blocking the windows. The message is clear: Don’t bother looking for context or any sort of deeper purpose. Don’t worry if the story is just a skeleton with a hundred broken bones. This isn’t a movie so much as it is a gleefully choreographed slaughterhouse, and everyone involved has so much fun playing with their food that you might just lose your appetite.
The plot, which Tjahjanto supposedly cracked in about three weeks (a factoid that gets less impressive with every scene), begins with a crazy evil kingpin breaking out of jail. It makes for a ruefully clever opening sequence, especially because the sociopathic Mr. Lee (Sunny Pang) exudes the diabolic charm of a classic criminal mastermind, his kooky smile insisting that the oncoming chaos is all in good fun. In a movie where the camerawork is every bit as athletic as the carnage it captures, it’s worth noting that the prologue is shot with the static gallows humor of a Park Chan-wook joint — these filmmakers are flexible in every sense of the word.
From there, we meet Uwais’ hero, who’s healing in a hospital with a bullet hole in his head. Nobody knows his real name, but the pretty intern (Chelsea Islan) assigned to his bed — deep in the throes of a “While You Were Sleeping” crush situation — insists on calling him Ishmael, a moniker inspired by some book she’s reading. To make a short story even shorter, “Ishmael” has a long history with Mr. Lee, his sort-of surrogate father, and lots of people get punched about it.
Punctured with CG bullet holes, comically bad B-movie banter, and an obligatory scene where two guys throw away their guns so they can fight like real men, “Headshot” is little more than a glorified showcase for Uwais’ singular brand of brutality, and that’s okay. The young Jakarta native — the most talented martial arts movie star since the Hong Kong heyday that gave us Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and Donnie Yen — is a gritty dynamo for the era of DIY action (many of the best scenes here, such as a fight scene during which Ishmael is handcuffed to a table, are defined by scrappy ingenuity rather than raw spectacle). Less balletic than his predecessors (and considerably less charismatic), Uwais stages combat with the blunt force of a wrecking ball. There’s still a dance-like quality to his choreography, but he doesn’t regard the body as an instrument so much as he does a bonsai tree that can only expression itself by being broken down to its trunk.
But while Uwais’ approach allows viewers to feel every blow, it’s exhausting by design. His films are focused on reduction, they want to mash a body into smaller and smaller bits of pulp, but from a certain distance all broken bones kind of look the same. Both “The Raid” and its gargantuan sequel suffered from a grueling sense of monotonousness, and “Headshot” is nearly undone by the same (it doesn’t help that, aside from the aforementioned scene on the bus and a quick duel on a beach, every fight scene is staged in a dank brown basement of one kind or another).
As the movie stretches deep into its second hour, it’s easy to start resenting the fact that everybody gets shot with 20 bullets when one would do, or to forget how insanely tired the camera operator must be from running circles around two people fighting each other so hard that they all but disappear into a “Looney Tunes” cloud of cartoon violence. It’s always a shame to watch something so jaw-dropping start to feel stale, but “Headshot” is much easier to enjoy if you think of it as a good excuse for Uwais to stay in shape so that he’s ready for the movie that turns him into a household name.
“Headshot” opens in theaters on Friday, March 3.