A man leading a quiet life is forced to revisit his dark secret when the violent past comes knocking on his door. This is a premise as old as time itself, but David Cronenberg took a shot at this plot with his sensational take on human impulses in his 2005 film A History of Violence. Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Leo, a tribute to the former, is a family-friendly update on the same sensibilities. If HOV, based on John Wagner’s 1997 graphic novel of the same name, explored the implications of violence among a man’s sheltered existence, Vijay’s Leo is more interested in finding out how far a family man would go to keep his wild past a secret. He’ll go to any lengths to protect his family — even if that means ruffling a few feathers— as Viggo Mortenson’s Tom would too. But in Leo, he’d also go to any lengths to keep his family in the dark. Because according to Parthiban, Leo Das is a dead man, a fact he firmly believes. So, what connects the Parthiban-Leo and Tom-Joey hybrid and what keeps them apart?
The very first thing we notice about Parthi and the two Toms (Stall in the film and Mckenna in the comic) is their bread and butter, which in this case is a cafe. Although Leo takes a while to get to the scene, all three versions routinely establish that the hero in front of us is an ordinary father of two.
The middle-aged men (in all the iterations) are pouring coffee and closing up when two intruders enter their diner. The unwanted guests (played by Sandy and Mysskin in Leo) are serial killers who want to call it a day with a cup of coffee (a chocolate coffee in Lokesh’s film). While the cafe scene in Leo is obviously a lot more decorated with Anbarivu’s stunts and Deva’s rollicking ‘Karu Karu Karuppayi’ blasting in the background, the original versions wrap up the fight within minutes. Interestingly, all three iterations have their leading man break bad with the same movement — bashing the coffee pot through the killer’s face. It is also at the end of the scene that Joe and Parthi notice the life they once renounced, slowly but steadily creeping up on them. If Parthi lets out a guttural cry at the sight of a gun in his hands and the blood splattered on his daughter’s, Tom’s face turns pale when he looks at his firearm. The treatment might be different, but the emotion is the same — fear.
While the film and the comic move on pretty quickly from this incident, Leo is obsessed with Parthi’s fear as Anirudh’s ‘I am Scared’ depicts. More than a fear for his family’s safety, it’s a type of distress that isn’t explored as much in star vehicles — Parthi dreads the recurrence of his past self. This feeling leads the characters to encounter the conflict they’ve been anticipating with trepidation — Sanjay Dutt’s Antony Das in Leo, and Ed Harris’s Fogerty (the man who wants revenge on Joey) in HOV. The interesting thing about the Cronenberg film is how it uses the secondary bad guys. Joey might have crossed Fogerty years ago, leaving him with half a dead eye and a scar. Yet, Fogerty isn’t the only one who wants him. He barely works for Richie, Joey’s elder brother, who wants him for yet another reason altogether. This bit of extra detail (and a terrifying Ed Harris) helps us understand the domino effect of the violence that wrecked Joey’s life — something that the Lokesh film doesn’t leverage.
Leo completely erases Fogerty from its universe, keeping all the mess within the family instead. So instead of Ed Harris, we get Arjun, who plays Antony’s brother and Leo’s uncle. In both films, every bad guy immediately recognises Leo in Parthi. In the comic, however, Torrino (Fogerty is Torrino in the comic) and the gang don’t go by just a hunch. Tom Mckenna misses a finger on his left hand, just as Joey. “We was good friends. Then he went away an’ I owed him…I like to pay my debts,” Torrino says, whipping out his finger in a glass vial! John Wagner and illustrator Vince Locke evoke a chilling dread by catching us off guard. For now, even the readers have solid proof to suspect Tom. “Is he actually Joey?” we wonder as we go ahead with the comic haunted by a nagging suspicion. We can only imagine how badass this scene would’ve been if it made it to the films' cut!
After having read the comic and watched Cronenberg’s film, an issue in Leo that made itself abundantly clear was its treatment of Sathya (Trisha), Parthi's wife. The one thing that connects the two Edies (the wife character) and Sathya is the fact that they’re both alpha women who take the shots — in Leo, however, Sathya’s powers are limited only to her family with dialogues encouraging the hackneyed “amma strict but appa cool” sentiment. Let’s consider the comic for instance. Edie is distressed by Torrino’s accusations, and she has her suspicions too. But in the shootout that happens outside the house (a scene that’s missing in Leo), she has her game face on. It’s in fact Edie who kills Torrino in the end and saves her husband. “I said get away from him,” she screams as she guns down Torrino.
In History of Violence, when Tom realises that there might be trouble in the house, he calls his wife and tells her to be ready with a shotgun. Edie (Maria Bello) scrambles to find her way around the gun and is ready at the door only for Tom to signal a false alarm. The same scene in Leo plays out very differently. Parthi calls his son (Mathew Thomas) and not Sathya when a similar fear settles in his gut. Sathya’s treatment also makes a lot of sense when you think about the direction Leo wants to head. Both the Toms (Stall and Mckenna) confide in their wives after the shootout. But Parthi doesn’t — even when he’s pushed to, he gaslights and nudges her in another direction. “It is not what I heard. It is what I saw. I saw Joey. I saw you turn into Joey right before my eyes” Edie tells her husband in HOV, going on to throw up when she realises who her husband really is. This leads to cold shoulders and a violent (yet consensual) sex scene that adds depth to their volatile marriage that’s hanging in the air.
In Leo, on the other hand, we don’t see the fear of a crumbling marriage that’s imminent because Parthi keeps her in the dark. “This family is my way of keeping my past behind. I’ll take care of anyone that comes between this family and me,” Leo says, sitting on a throne-like chair in the climax. While this adds a bit of a mad-king energy to Parthi (bringing to mind Charles Baudelaire who once wrote that the greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist), it doesn’t humanise Leo like Joey to audiences.
This is the one aspect that interestingly separates Leo, A History of Violence and the comic. Cronenberg takes the simple yet pithy route to address Joey’s past — he doesn’t. We don’t get to see Joey in an elaborate flashback whacking people in style. We instead see it in Tom when he growls and takes down the men outside his house. We hear it in Tom as he confides to Edie. “I thought I killed Joey Cusack. I wasn’t born until I met you,” he tells her, telling her how he once killed for pleasure and money. We also see Joey when he meets his brother Richie, who is still stunned at Joey’s ability to kill. Joey and his depravity is left to fester in our imagination.
Leo takes the route that the comic does — it tells us who this person once was. In the comic, Richie (the main villian in Cronenberg's HOV) isn’t Joey’s brother, but his best friend, with whom he takes down the Manzi crime syndicate in a stylish heist. While they take down Lou Manzi, the shark, they don’t realise that his son “Little Lou” is still out for blood, over 20 years later. John Wagner describes Tom as a “mild-mannered father of two who becomes a full-blown Rambo,” and in the comic’s flashback portions, we see the man behind this Rambo. Joey isn’t a swashbuckling saviour who likes killing people in the comic. He kills hesitantly — and perhaps out of persuasion on Richie’s account — for quick cash to treat his ailing grandmother.
Lokesh puts a different spin to Leo’s past, making him a loyal killing machine and a cog in the wheel that is his father’s tobacco factory. He also introduces a twin (Madonna Sebastian) who comes across as an afterthought. But arguably the most interesting aspect of his past is something that we never see coming — his father Antony Das’s interest in the Occult and human sacrifice. While this plotline is regrettably, never fleshed out, we see glimpses of Little Lou’s nastiness in Antony.
In a stomach-churning moment in the comic’s climax, we learn that Little Lou has been finding joy in gradually butchering Richie's every small body part over the past few years, keeping him a prisoner and never letting him die. In the end, when Joey meets Richie, he’s but a ghost of his friend. The comic ends with Joey killing, not just Lou, but grudgingly also his best friend — a kill that will probably end Tom’s history of violence for good. Can the same be said for Vijay’s Leo? We don’t think so.