US distributors of Headshot have hung the film on a gimmick: a cop takes a bullet in the skull and wakes to find his vision is flipped, and he's forced to adjust to this new spin on life while several groups of people try to take him out. It sounds like the recipe for an off-the-wall action film built around wild, disorienting cinematography, but Headshot is almost the opposite, a contemplative character piece with a heavy film noir flavor. Instead of visual flair, the film offers a heavy dose of Buddhist teachings, broken up by brutal violence and some surprisingly compelling, understated romance.
After an opening showing the incident the film was named for, director/writer Pen-ek Ratanaruang jumps back to show the character of Tul (Nopachai Chaiyanam) as an angry police officer who firmly believes his job is to punish evil people. After a bust gone wrong leaves his partner dead, he roughs up the suspect in retaliation. Soon after, a lawyer comes to visit him, offering him a bribe to dump the case. Tul refuses, but the lawyer and the criminals behind him find a way to twist his arm, and Tul ends up imprisoned. Inside the joint, he reads up on a Dr. Suang (Kiat Punpiputt), nicknamed Venom, who argues that the "evil genes" in all of us will win if we don't actively seek to destroy them. Tul writes a letter to Dr. Suang, who offers him a new job: "assassination expert," wiping out the criminals that make up the "evil genes" of the world.
Although I'm not an expert or even particularly knowledgable when it comes to Buddhism, Tul certainly struggles with his shift in perspective on the road to enlightenment. He is good at killing when he's told to (as a policeman, as an assassin) or when he has to (as a fugitive), but he struggles to figure out whether or not he's doing it for the right reasons, and whether or not he should be doing it at all. Along the way, Tul meets and spends time with two women who help and hurt him in ways that run counter to reason: Tiwa (Chanokporn Sayoungkul) and Rin (Sirin Horwang). Ratanaruang simultaneously conveys what they see and what Tul sees, creating an interesting sense of internal logic that reflects the unusual way the world -- both the real world and the one in the movie -- tends to work out.
Chaiyanam is a versatile actor. As Tul's life changes, he changes the notes of his performance, shifting subtly from from an angry police officer into a bitter prisoner, from a bitter prisoner into an emotionally adrift assassin, from a adrift assassin into a man beginning to get a sense of enlightenment, with internal peace just out of his grasp. He has expressive eyes that remain transfixing even as his hairstyle and general appearance change significantly, and there are times when he exudes a simple calm some actors would be afraid to attempt for fear of looking like they're doing nothing. The performance is also impressively physical, in the movie's few action scenes, and his voice-over ties the film together nicely, with a quiet, matter-of-fact philosophical tone that reminded me of Choi Min-Sik's voice-over in Oldboy.
In terms of thrills, Ratanaruang may be interested in doing more than meeting genre conventions, but that doesn't mean Headshot is any less of a tension generator. The film expertly blends sophistication with excitement: the ill-fated bust is gripping, a torture sequence is startling and intense, and a shootout in the woods has an air of unpredictability missing from so many American action movies. Although the tone is low-key, the film moves along without dragging or getting lost. Audiences reeled in solely by misleading log lines might be disappointed, but those willing to go with the film will be rewarded with a refreshingly unique movie that succeeds as a drama and a thriller.
The Video and Audio
Headshot is a truly tragic Blu-Ray transfer: one that is absolutely reference quality except for one frequent issue. Depth, detail, color, and clarity all appear absolutely perfect through 95% of the movie, but some bizarre, extreme instances of posterization/banding are disappointingly obvious during a few of the movie's darker scenes. Some of these moments are pretty brief -- an early, very obvious example appears in a shot of Tul cutting his hair in the mirror; not only is his body covered in shadowy rings, but even the wall has flickering patterns on it -- but the real kicker is a blue-tinted shootout in the woods at dusk, which looks distractingly awful. Rarely have I so wanted to give a movie a perfect video score, and been so unable to overlook the one flaw hounding the presentation.
A DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track, on the other hand, is flawless. Headshot has exceptionally haunting sound design, from the warbling of tribal-sounding horns and the insistent, piercing whine of a ringing telephone hanging in the air. I even like the shadow outline around the movie's English subtitles. Thai and English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 tracks are also available.
The only extra is a photo gallery. An original theatrical trailer for Headshot has also been included.
Although Headshot may not be the wild action movie some will expect from the advertising, it's still one of the most unusual and surprising thrillers I've seen in ages, with a cool, assured tone and a thoughtful atmosphere. Highly recommended.
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