It is said that to enjoy some movies, one has to leave their brain at home. This happens to be a common phrase that is often used in order to defend many Bollywood potboilers, which are headlined by fifty-something, steroid-bodied superstars. The storyline of Netflix’s new comedy-thriller Head To Head, from Saudi Arabia, is a hundred times more ludicrous than all those Bollywood movies. Yet you perfectly enjoy it with your brain perfectly attached to your body, as it’s supposed to be.
Five years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined watching a Saudi movie, let alone reviewing it for work. But with the rise of Netflix, every kind of movie from every corner of the world has become accessible to us. Sure, with the streaming giant taking the reins of production, a lot of the movies are being presented to us with a particular Netflix filter on them. No matter what the country, language, or genre, they all basically look the same. And there is a severe lack of quality as well. But even then, sometimes a movie manages to rise above the barrier and come off as something that is genuinely engaging, very enthralling, and, most importantly, doesn’t have the Netflix filter on it. Head To Head happens to be one such marvel, a movie that would make the likes of Guy Ritchie feel extremely proud.
I have always been a believer in the craft when it comes to movies. For me, it’s never really about what the story is; rather, it’s always about how it is being told to the audience. Take Head To Head as an example here. A private car company driver mistakenly picks up the wrong passenger instead of the father of the owner of the company he works for. In the same company, the erratic owner suddenly appoints an equally erratic maintenance person as the CEO. The wrongly picked passenger happens to be a notorious ganglord from the old days and the father of an equally dangerous bonehead, who goes by a name like “Jack Of Diamond.” As the newly appointed CEO, the maintenance workers’ first order of business turns out to be fixing this entire mess. Obviously, this would follow a string of mishaps and madness, which should be familiar to you if you have ever been a follower of the kind of cinema Priyadarshan or Anees Bazmee used to make in the early 2000s. Where the director deliberately used to create chaotic situations with the help of a bunch of silly characters, only to bring them all together at the same place for the explosively funny climax. Movies like Welcome (2007) and Bhagam Bhag (2010) should be considered testaments in favor of this format.
But here is the thing: Head To Head doesn’t just pick up one particular style and build an entire film on it. It takes inspiration from many places instead. I never imagined a Saudi Arabian movie adapting a form of Spaghetti Western. This movie not only does that, it looks so effortless and blends into the narrative so well. From its opening sequence to the climax, a lot of the movie is designed in a way that makes you feel like you’re experiencing a true Western. However, despite adapting the Western style, Head To Head deliberately makes the character endearingly goofy. Even the bad ones are not entirely evil here. A minor character literally tries to blast two other characters by tying them up with explosives. But a minute later, he gives up on that idea thanks to being subdued by the movie’s only female character. And a few moments later, all these characters get together and go to the villain’s HQ in order to rescue the other characters.
Speaking of female characters, for a long time, I thought the movie had made the stereotypical choice of sidelining the female characters to cater to the male audience. There was only one, anyway, whose contribution was limited to being one of the main characters’ romantic interest. But then the movie decided to change the notion by making its only female character the most important one. The mere girlfriend of the hero morphs into this badass woman who basically decides the fate of everyone during the grand climax, which in my book, is a great triumph. The movie’s de facto hero, the driver, also comes of age throughout the course of it. From being introduced as this frustrated at-work man to turning into a gun-slinging savior, the harmless-looking man goes a long way.
Coming back to the many styles of Head To Head, as that is really the main deal of this movie, along with the Spaghetti Western tone and the caper comedy style, it also creates a vibrant, almost apocalyptic Saudi Arabia. This is not how you would imagine the country; in fact, a lot of it actually reminds you of the artistic style of Dibakar Banerjee’s Detective Byomkesh Bakshi. However, the cinematography of Head To Head heavily borrows from the work of legendary cinematographer Christopher Doyle, especially in Wong Kar-Wai movies. All these very different cinematic elements go into the blender, and we get something exquisitely original. Easily supported by a scintillating soundtrack, it unfolds like an uber-cool graphic novel.
If we think about cinema’s primary agenda in a general sense, then that has to be entertaining the audience. Head To Head passes that test with flying colors. It doesn’t claim to be the kind of cinema that plays in film festivals or is discussed by people who claim to be cinephiles. In many ways, I would compare this with a greasy, deep-fried snack that doesn’t do your health any good but satisfies your cravings to the maximum extent. It is the kind of movie that should be played during movie nights, where a bunch of friends should indulge in a bit of out of the box enjoyment and experience it with all the popcorn, nachos, and whatnot. But with all that said, the craft of Head To Head is still very much superior compared to many movies, and it should be lauded for that.