Vikram (2022)

2022 is proving to be an excellent year for Indian cinema. Pushpa, RRR, KGF2 and now Vikram have really raised the bar and we’re only halfway through the year! In Vikram, Lokesh Kanagaraj delves back into the world he created with Kaithi and adds more threads to his tale of drug dealing, police corruption and gang warfare. With a who’s who of Southern Indian actors, an engrossing story and fabulous action sequences, Vikram is another ‘not to be missed’ film that deserves to be seen at the cinema.

The story begins with Police Chief Jose (Chemban Vinod Jose) bringing in a ‘black-ops’ team headed by an agent known only as Aram (Fahadh Faasil). The police have been sent a series of videos showing black-masked terrorists murder the local Head of Narcotics Stephen Raj (Hareesh Peradi), ACP Prabhanjan (Kalidas Jayaram) and Prabhanjan’s adopted father Karnan (Kamal Haasan). With the final murder seemingly unconnected, Aram immediately starts investigating Karnan, trying to find any possible link that might explain the deaths. His investigations reveal a man who had turned to drink and prostitutes after the death of his adopted son, but no link to the case Prabhanjan was involved with before his death. However, in the course of his inquiries, Aram discovers a missing shipment of drugs belonging to drug kingpin Sandhanam (Vijay Sethupathi) and identifies two more men involved with the drug trade who may be in danger. Veerapandian ((Gowtham Sundarajan) and Rudra Prathap (Aruldoss) are both likely targets as they reportedly know the location of the missing shipments, but despite the police, Sandhanam and Aram all trying to protect the men, the ‘men in black’ are hard to evade.

Aram and his men have no boundaries and as such threaten, beat and bully their way to the information required. Oddly, during the investigation Aram also marries Gayathri (Gayathrie Shankar) despite her ignorance about his real job and seeming unconcern about the man she finds being held prisoner in Amar’s offices. Apart from this one glimpse into a possible softer side, Fahadh Faasil’s Amar is as brutal and dangerous as the men he is seeking. As one of the top actors in the South, Fahadh Faasil is always impressive, but he is electrifying here to the point where he almost manages to steal attention away from Kamal Haasan. Fahadh’s body language, expressions and dialogue delivery are simply brilliant throughout and when his life starts to fall apart, his portrayal of a man at the limit of his ability to cope is excellent. One moment that really stands out is his absolute frustration when trying to resuscitate Prabhanjan’s young son which was simply perfect (standard filmi medical miracles aside of course). I also recognised the Queen of Subtitles rekhs as the dubbing voice for Dr Annie on the line assisting Amar with the process which added just the right note to the whole scene.

Vijay Sethupathi has played the role of a demented brutal gangster before, so the character of Sandhanam isn’t a stretch for him, but Vijay gives the character plenty of traits that set the gangster apart from his previous roles. Sandhanam has 3 wives, and there is an excellent montage where we see Sandhanam, his family and one of his wives practicing target shooting, perhaps to show he’s a supporter of equal opportunities for all. He certainly believes in keeping it in the family since his the main members of Sandhanam’s gang producing the drug supply are all from his large extended family, and he is ultra-protective of them, although happily expends his henchmen elsewhere when necessary. Able to switch between fake doctor, urbane businessman and unhinged gangster with a tendency to use his own product, Sandhanam is more complex than first appears and Vijay Sethupathi brings out all of these different facets of his character even with limited screen time.

Kamal Haasan is the focus of the film and despite not appearing much in the first half, his presence is still felt as the ghost manipulating much of the action. He is amazingly agile in the fight scenes, and if he appears rather less sprightly in an early dance sequence, there are reasons behind that which are revealed later in the story. This is another outstanding performance from one of the greats of Tamil cinema and he does not put a foot wrong. There is a good mix of humour in the dialogue too, and the addition of scenes with his family help to break up the actions sequences and add more fuel to the film’s fury. And if you thought Yash had a big gun in KGF2, think again – guns are so passé when you can have a cannon instead! The other support cast are also excellent from Narain reprising his role as Inspector Bejoy to Chemban Vinod Jose, Kalidas Jayaram, Sampath Ram and Ramesh Thilak. My favourite moment in the entire film comes from Agent Tina (Vasanthi) and I also loved the totally unhinged appearance by Suriya, who has a brief appearance at the end.

The action sequences here by Anbariv are excellent and Girish Gangadharan captures the effects beautifully. The scale of the film is huge with wide shots over the city of Chenni, massive gunfire and explosion sequences and then a total change to close-ups of Sandhanam’s gold teeth. Girish ensures it all looks stunning regardless. Even at 3 hours of runtime, nothing in the film drags and with Anirudh’s soundtrack underpinning the action and emotions of the film, the balance is perfect. Thanks to rekhs who has subtitled the entire film with perfect English although the use of ‘shucks’ and ‘crap’ as substitutes for the actual dialogue did make me smile. I’m assuming there is a censorship reason behind the change since the original words are clearly audible. Thanks too for the yellow font which is much more readable than white.

Vikram is high octane action with plenty of plot detail and connections that make the plot intriguing as well as exciting. The performances are uniformly excellent and I honestly think the film is many times better than anything I’ve seen from Hollywood in recent times. While a number of the characters from Kaithi resurface, Vikram is a self-contained story that can be enjoyed without having seen the earlier film, and the references aren’t so obscure that it’s impossible to work out previous links. I’m looking forward to the next instalment and seeing just what Lokesh Kanagaraj comes up with next in his mad and crazy world of drug lords and special agents.

Beast

I really was in two minds about posting this review. I usually really enjoy Vijay films and can find something to like about almost any film, but I just couldn’t find much that was redeeming about Beast. The film tries to be an action thriller comedy but fails on every one of those 3 aspects. There are a few good action set pieces, but just as many poorly thought-out scenes that just don’t work. The comedy is often inane, and the real laughs come from the attempts at making this a thriller, which are so bad they are funny. Nothing about this film worked for me except perhaps the first action sequence and Selvaraghavan as a security advisor attempting to negotiate the release of hostages. I really wanted to like Beast, but sadly I didn’t enjoy it at all.

I’ve previously watched Nelson’s début film Kolamaavu Kokila which was pretty good, so it is really disappointing that Beast is such a disaster. There are so many problems that it’s difficult to know where to start, but essentially the plot never engages or makes any kind of sense, while the supposed hilarity of terrorists being stabbed/shot/decapitated in front of young children is just grotesque. Beast starts well enough with RAW agent Veera (Vijay) capturing the terrorist Umar Farooq (Lillput) in typical ‘one-man-army’ style. The action sequences are good here and it doesn’t matter that none of them are realistic because it’s the usual fare expected from a Vijay action movie. But then a young girl is killed when Veera’s intelligence officer decides that it’s more important to capture Farooq than to save any civilians in the area and the plot starts to unravel.

Veera is devastated by his actions and immediately leaves RAW but is still traumatised some 11 months later. In what initially appears to be a very progressive move, he goes to see a therapist (Prudhvi Raj) but bizarrely the therapist cracks a few terrible jokes at Veera’s expense and then drags him to a wedding. There he meets Preethi (Pooja Hegde) and after a brief conversation and a quick bop they decide they are in love and get engaged. They ignore the small problem of Preethi’s current fiancé Ramachandran (Sathish Krishnan) who is still infatuated and refuses to believe that Preethi doesn’t want to marry him. This is somehow supposed to be funny, but it’s just plain stupid, while Ramachandran’s antics are consistently irritating and infantile. In an attempt to add even more puerile comedy, Yogi Babu and Redin Kingsley pop up as two inept mall workers but nothing they do is amusing at all. 

Preethi introduces Veera to her boss Domnic (VTV Ganesh) who runs “Domnic and Soldiers”, a security company so bad they are only employed by 1 shopping mall – which has just decided to terminate their contract. Veera goes along with Preethi and Domnic to the mall for further discussions, but just as they are leaving, the mall is hijacked by a group of terrorists led by Umar Saif (Ankur Ajit Vikal). Right from the start the hijack seems doomed to fail since the terrorists don’t appear to know what they are doing. Most seem to be roaming around the mall paying no attention to their surroundings, and only 2 are tasked to guard all the hostages. Naturally Veera’s spidey senses started tingling before the hijack started and he manages to find a hideaway along with Preethi, her boss and her ex-fiancé.

There are a number of action sequences set in the mall as Veera fights back against the terrorists and attempts to free the hostages. The problem is that none of these work very well, and some, such as Vijay fighting on roller blades, are just awkward. We have the usual 1 indestructible man against many and since Veera has no armour but the hostages are wearing excessive amounts of protective gear, the fact that bullets magically miss Veera while his always strike home makes for rather dull viewing. The whole hijacking sequence seems to be played for laughs except that it’s really not funny to watch Vijay chop up gunmen in front of children. The first decapitation is quite funny though. After that, the action is predictable (notwithstanding the bizarre decision to use roller blades) and there are a few quite horrific moments that are particularly jarring when set into comedy sequences. 

While the hostage situation is going on there is a corrupt politician (Shaji Chen) trying to play both sides, and this is where the film picks up pace adding some amusing scenes with National Security Advisor Althaf Hussain (Selvaraghavan). Who knew one of my favourite Tamil directors could act so well? His comedic timing here is good, and he stands out as one of the best performances in the film. As much as I want him to keep making films as a director, I do hope we get to see more of him in front of the cameras was well.

To be fair, it’s not that Vijay puts in a poor performance – in fact he’s livelier and more enthusiastic here than in his last outing Master, but the role is too schizophrenic to succeed. Jolting from lean, mean, killing machine to rollerskating comedian is a step too far and not even Vijay’s natural charm can save the character. Veera is always just Vijay acting and so nothing feels real – not the initial trauma of the mission gone wrong, the contrived romance or even the idea that he can take on all the terrorists by himself. There is a distinct lack of empathy in the character which is odd given his supposed issue with killing a child, and habit of hearing wailing children at odd moments. However, at no time during the hijack situation does Veera seem to even think of the hostages as people, and they are just the bargaining chip to let him kill terrorists in ever more bloody ways.

The rest of the cast don’t fare well either. Pooja Hegde is completely wasted in a role where she has nothing to do although Aparna Das makes more of an impression in her brief appearance as the politician’s daughter. Shaji Chen chews scenery at every opportunity and while Ankur Ajit Vikal is appropriately cold, he doesn’t get enough screen time or dialogue to make him a convincing opponent. It doesn’t help that the songs are woeful as well, with nonsensical lyrics and bizarre costuming that distracts from the choreography. The final song is called Jolly O Gymkhana (!) and features the backing dancers, Vijay and Pooja in tropical costumes wandering from a beach into a snowstorm for no apparent reason. Nonsense music, nonsense lyrics and nonsense choreography I guess all go together but the result is a mess. I noticed the backing dancers more than the main leads since they seemed to be having a much better time, but none of the songs were enjoyable at all. 

Thanks to rekhs for at least supplying subtitles that made sense even if nothing else about the film did. I can’t even mention the finale sequence which was jaw-droppingly terrible although the special effects were pretty good. The main problem with Beast is a lack of consistency in Veera’s character, added to a storyline that makes no sense. The jumble of action, comedy and political thriller needed a taut and well defined storyline with crisp action, but there is almost the complete opposite here. I left the cinema disappointed and sad because I wanted to like Beast, but there was little for me to enjoy. Maybe wait for streaming when it’s possible to watch the first sequence, Selvaraghavan and ignore the rest.

Master (2021)

I loved Lokesh Kanagaraj’s last film Kaithi, and was interested to see how he would approach having a big name star for his latest movie. Not that Kathik isn’t a star (he definitely is!), but there are certain fan expectations for a Vijay film and as might be expected Lokesh follows most. However Master is more than simply another star vehicle and thankfully there are some touches that make this a cut above the usual Vijay mass film. For instance, the villain here is just as important as the hero – in fact he has more of a backstory and quite frankly a more interesting story arc. The obligatory ‘romance’ is practically non-existent and here Vijay plays a more dislikeable hero with more flaws than I’ve seen before. It’s not a perfect movie, but better than I was expecting and with both Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi on screen together, a real treat for fans of both.

The film opens with a young Bhavani (Master Mahendran) being menaced by his father’s enemies after they have murdered his family. He’s thrown into a juvenile detention centre where he is beaten and bullied, leading Bhavani to develop a tough persona and his own ‘superpower’ from years of pounding his fist into the wall. Moving forward to the present, and the now adult Bhavani (Vijay Sethupathi) has taken control of the trucking industry using the young inmates of the detention centre as his criminal associates. Most notably he uses them to take the blame for his various illegal acts, while plying the youngsters with drugs and alcohol to keep them compliant.

Meanwhile, a college teacher John Durairaj aka JD (Vijay) is struggling with his job. Although he is loved by the students for his stance on student rights, the headmaster and other staff dislike him, possibly due to his popularity with the students, although this doesn’t ring true. When a contest for a new student president descends into violence, JD is quickly ousted from his job and moved to the juvenile detention centre to take charge of the facility as the new ‘Master’. JD quickly discovers the facility is beset by corruption and after a distressing incident involving two of the inmates, he starts to make changes in his own life. The idea seems to be that to change the facility he first has to change himself. After discovering links between Bhavani and his juvenile pupils, he sets out to destroy Bhavani and redeem the inmates.

So far so good, the story is engaging if rather predictable, and the addition of a good and personable villain really helps. As expected for a Vijay film, the action sequences are well choreographed and executed to a high standard. Those involving Bhavani and the various people who stand between him and the coveted Union leader’s position are made even more awesome by his ‘super-power’, which harks back to those hero fight scenes where the hero can manage to defeat hundreds of men without even breaking a sweat! There is a terrific extended sequence with JD in a police station, and it’s clear that all these small fight scenes are leading up to the big finale between JD and Bhavani, which also does not disappoint. While I would have liked a few more fight scenes with Vijay, overall, in terms of action, Master gets the recipe just right. The songs too are excellent. The energy and exuberance in this opening number with Vijay is simply spectacular!

What also works well is the development of Bhavani as a villain. Initially the character evokes sympathy for the way he was treated, and in many other films this would be the track that turns someone into a hero. But not here. Instead, after being powerless as a teenager, Bhavani becomes corrupt and willing to sacrifice anyone and everyone for his ambition.  Lokesh uses Vijay Sethupathi’s voice for the young Bhavani, I think modulated to sound younger, and it’s works well to anchor Bhavani’s persona in what he experienced as a youth. Vijay Sethupathi uses his physicality to really dominate in the film and I loved that here was a villain that I could really enjoy. There is some comedy and naturally lots of cool mannerisms that meant I was rooting for Bhavani in every single fight (well, the people he was fighting were just as corrupt) at least until he locks horns with Vijay. I am a big Vijay Sethupathi fan, and it was good to see him as the villain of the story for a change.

Interestingly, Vijay’s character JD had much less character development, although there is a long sequence at the start that introduces him and deals with his issues in the college where he works. This part of the film does drag and it also introduces characters that don’t add anything much to the story. Although they do appear at the end, by that stage I’d forgotten who they were and why I should care about their fate. Indeed, the entire introduction sequence only had 3 points of note, all of which could have been established in a fraction of the time. 

JD’s introduction sequence does feature new teacher Charu (Malavika Mohanan) who has a crush on JD. But s is so often the case in these big hero films, there was simply no point to Charu’s character and unfortunately, she adds little to the story. Her crush doesn’t go much further and attempts to bring her into the story using ‘connections’ in the detention facility fall rather flat. The only part of her story I enjoyed was when young inmate Undiyal (Pooviyar) manages to save her from a gang of thugs while JD is unable to do anything but watch. That felt much more like a Lokesh Kanagaraj touch. The best scenes are those with Vijay and the kids in the detention facility, and in these the mix of comedy, action and tension is just right. The contrast between Bhavani’s scenes of menace and destruction are used well to contrast with the gritty but still lighter scenes in the facility. I just wish there had been more of this and less of the ‘fluff’ and window dressing,

The good parts of the film; the fight scenes, Anirudh’s music and Vijay Sethupathi as a villain, are all excellent. Vijay is awesome in the fight scenes and his interactions with the kids in the detention facility are really cute. But where Master really falls down is the length. The film is really long and there is much that just feels unnecessary and indulgent. The screenplay seems loose and at times not coherently put together with a number of side alleys and diversions that should have been curtailed. The additions and distractions slow down the plot and the film only comes back to life when either JD or Bhavani are centre stage without all the extra padding weighing them down. An action film with Vijay should be tight and exciting from start to finish but sadly, Master isn’t, not quite. But it’s still a fun watch and I did enjoy watching Vijay Sethupathi as a villain and Vijay’s foray into the educational system. Thanks to rekhs and her excellent subtitles the film is also easy to understand while the production is slick and polished. I wish I’d been able to watch this in the cinema with a huge crowd, which would have helped get through some of the slow sequences. But even at home, Master is still a good film and definitely a better than average watch.