A recurring problem with Indian spy films, unfortunately, is that the filmmakers invariably get carried away and lose track of their roots. As absurd as it sounds, fantasizing about Bond and Bourne films as an audience is absolutely normal, but trying to execute something on the same scale in a country that has no history or lineage of thin red lines will always be a bit overambitious. The reason films like Casino Royale, MI-4 and the Bourne films do well here is precisely why an Agent Vinod will never make it - an exotic escape from reality is always sweeter away from home. Watching Saif Ali Khan blast his way through the streets of Morocco, Pakistan, Russia and London - a few tacky CG shots concealed in an orgy of technical efficiency - will always lack a bit of authenticity. It isn't like we haven't seen it before, and there's nobody cooler than an established 007 doing the same thing. There's a sense of history there, a sense of knowing what to expect - however outrageously outlandish the action seems - and the security of a famous lead character that will face his inner demons at some point of time.
Azaan, a barely-noticed 'international espionage' film from last year that seemed eerily similar to Agent Vinod at certain junctures, fell short due to above mentioned reasons, apart from some tacky acting and haphazard editing.
Agent Vinod had everything going for it that Ra.One didn't. They went subtle on publicity, put forward a couple of decent (misleading, in hindsight) trailers, a smart soundtrack, a poker-faced lead actor, a cameo-filled ensemble cast, a tortured shoot schedule, a well-executed arrest that succeeded a Vinod-style ass-kicking, and most importantly - an acclaimed director with an impeccable genre track record. Also, despite Saif taking a cue from old friend Shah Rukh and going producer-actor on his ambitious baby, this was always going to be director Sriram Raghavan's forte. What better way to complete an impressive hat-trick of good films than ending it with a Bond-style save-the-world espionage thriller. Of course, the insanely inflated budget was a welcome addition... or was it?
Our worst fears are confirmed. The total lack of soul that radiated from Don 2 seems to have snuck its way into yet another Khan-starrer, but one can't fault Saif and his crew for any lack of effort (or hamming). He does his job well, only as much as the script allows him to. He makes you curious, just like 007 does in the opening scenes of Die Another Day, but the introduction of a contrived Kareena Kapoor steals his thunder. She is gorgeous in red for half of the film, but fails to excite us with her apparent lack of identity. If only half the filmmaker's effort was channeled into creating some sort of a character graph rather than simply throwing double-crossing shady villains by the dozen in Vinod's path.
Inevitably, Raghavan ends up showing us something that tries to be too complex for its own good, and we end up wondering why corny terms like '242' and nuclear bombs with passwords are being used, Raghavan's queer 70s retro obsession be damned. It eventually falls prey to everything that the nifty Johnny Gaddaar didn't, starting with an unhealthy dose of overambitious storytelling that leans more on the spy's actual path and geography than his journey.
Agent Vinod is a few notches above recent globe-trotting efforts in most departments, but it is mighty difficult to feel strongly for the complicated action-hero journey that unfolds on screen. In no time, you find yourself dragged from one continent to another, desperately trying to put pieces of the puzzle together and hoping to be one step ahead as an audience. But if you are, what is the point of Agent Vinod, right?
Loopholes apart, Raghavan does have some unparalleled moments of brilliance and you grin hopefully when you see a couple of superbly-choreographed fights sequences over retro music that only this filmmaker can conceive (a la Shaitan, but much, much better). The stunning one-shot sequence that unfolds over the lilting Raabta, while Vinod and his lady try to escape yet another gang in a hotel, will leave you gasping for breath with its sheer audacity. This superbly executed gunfight might go unnoticed by many, but one must applaud the filmmakers for pushing the envelope and pulling off a sheer cinematic miracle that must have taken weeks to get right. There is another Chaplin-inspired chase sequence in yet another country (ceases to matter where) that tries to raise the film to a quirky-cult level, and may leave most of us reeling with the sheer bizarreness of it all. Raghavan's penchant for such style, though, cannot be ignored.
In the larger scheme of things, such moments are few and far between and don't really add up to serve us the overhyped product that was promised to us. Most fanboys might have their heart broken when they find themselves cringing at the tackiness of a helicopter sequence towards the climax.
A small step in this genre, unfortunately, is not a very large step for mankind anymore. Not with 007, his martinis and Ethan Hunt still around.
- Rahul Desai aka Reel Reptile