Director: Siddharth Anand
Cast: Hrithik Roshan, Tiger Shroff, Vaani Kapoor
WAR is perhaps Hindi cinema's cleverest modern-day bromance. The plot reads thus: A fading Greek God goes rogue – by doing a slew of under-par Bollywood entertainers – and a rising Roman God looks at him with equal parts adoration and bewilderment. "But why, sir, why?" the young man demands to know, his face a picture of hero-worshipping anguish, when they face off in one of ten exotic countries. Early on, he had spent an entire mission trying to win the validation of the master; he did everything to repeatedly assure his hero that he is more than just his bloodline. But now he feels betrayed. In response, the light-eyed older man flashes that wickedly familiar smile, almost as if to remind his pained protege – and us – that he isn't done yet. That, maybe, just maybe, his downfall was all part of a comeback plan. And so the stars (literally) align.
That WAR also happens to be a barnstorming, knuckle-busting and an immensely enjoyable action movie under the guise of a meta bromance tale is just the icing on the gluten-free cake.
Hrithik Roshan (as one-man-army Major Kabir) embarks upon a meta-fictional journey opposite Tiger Shroff (as one-boy-army Captain Khalid) to not just resurrect his own legacy but also pay tribute to the one Shroff currently owns. At another point, Kabir even admonishes a very physical villain by telling him that he is no Khalid. It's an ingenious moment with a deeper plot point (I've only paraphrased here), but let's just say that he is taunting a man for trying to emulate Shroff. If this isn't India's hierarchically toxic senior-junior culture smartly reimagined in the language of healthy creative rivalry, I don't know what is. In due time, we end up looking at Roshan – cool, generous, refined, self-aware – the way most red-blooded viewers look at super-agents who age like fine wine. As both a real-life and a reel-life underdog…in search of believers. But in slow-motion, as if he were perpetually surfacing from the ocean in skin-hugging swimwear. That WAR also happens to be a barnstorming, knuckle-busting and an immensely enjoyable action movie under the guise of a meta bromance tale is just the icing on the gluten-free cake.
WAR – which, in a way, reverses the formula of the quintessential Bond-wannabe RAW agent saga – updates the Dhoom template by weaponizing the hero-villain duality and turning it into a purist chase-action orgy. It's uncomplicated and bareboned, with kinetic energy trumping intellectual energy. The film opens with rogue agent Kabir assassinating an Indian army boss, before the chief puts patriotic soldier Khalid in charge of the Kabir-killing mission. The first half moves into a flashback to establish the reason we should feel Khalid's conflict in hunting down his legendary ex-boss. Of course the two men tease and resort to the usual catch-me-if-you-can dialogue porn, but there's something inherently charming about the way Roshan delivers his one-step-ahead-of-you smirks. The second half has a series of goofy but strangely witty twists that somewhat compliment the breath-taking escapism of the action sequences in between. For once, I stopped obsessing about how these agents get their visas and gave into the ride.
Early on in Shroff's introduction scene, it becomes clear that there might be a method to the well-choreographed madness. For instance, despite the derivativeness of his previous Hrithik-starrer, Bang Bang!, director Siddharth Anand notably lent a language to its chase sequences – the underground-party-music beats and stylish electro-riffs elevated the social rhythm of Indian action scenes being shot in foreign locations. When Shroff first enters here, he crashes a drug-lord meeting in Malta and in a long single take, athletically pummels them to death. There's not a hint of a background score till he's done with the mission, with only ambience noise, punches and crunches scoring his raw intent. It's unusual to introduce a huge action star in this manner, and signifies an ambition to subvert the genre through the image of its famous occupants. The rest of the set pieces – audaciously Mission-Impossible-ish is one centered on a mid-air attack across two planes and a gravity-defying Roshan – embrace the electro-beat soundtrack, almost as if the filmmaker is willing us to pop our heads and tap our feet to the music-video-ish functionality of these moments. People are being killed, but our brain gets tricked into viewing the stylish slaughter as peppy night-club brawls.
Also remarkable is a bike-chase in Europe, which somehow doesn't stop to think about collateral damage and wonder if this affects our moral perception of the rogue agent. (If he's still killing innocent officers, why should we empathize?). Yet, it's a suitably scarred Hrithik Roshan on screen, and he distracts us before our mind dares to question Kabir's ways. This is probably the first time since Ek Tha Tiger where the deep-pocketed producers have fully committed to the use of the cutting-edge technology and considerable resources at hand. From Malta to Italy to Marrakech to Portugal to Kerala to even the Arctic circle, they spare no expense in finding the kind of criminally beautiful environments that suit the bronzed men running through them.
You almost feel bad that the makers couldn't resist a Holi song in which the two mutant-good dancers match steps. But given the film's allegorical purpose, it almost fits into the pattern. The only downer is Vaani Kapoor – not so much her fleeting performance, but just the presence of a girl for the heck of it. Even if her character, Naina, was necessary to lend the plot some biological diversity, perhaps a lesser-known Bollywood face – similar to Anupriya Goenka as the tech expert – might have worked. When Kapoor appears, I couldn't fathom the sinking feeling of watching the testosterone-laced hero-hero fairytale being interrupted by…a heroine. (What's worse is Naina isn't one). To Tiger Shroff's credit, Khalid isn't the virginal white Rambo-type patriot we've come to expect from him – it's a risk, and a wise one that can't be dissected without giving away spoilers. His stone-faced sincerity is used to good effect. ("Maybe there's something about this face that makes everyone expect loyalty," he snarls at one point). I'm almost tempted to think that the writers conceived the twists of the airy script after casting the actors, given how it plays with our preconceived notions about them.
To Tiger Shroff's credit, Khalid isn't the virginal white Rambo-type patriot we've come to expect from him – it's a risk, and a wise one that can't be dissected without giving away spoilers.
It can get utterly deflating to see Indian filmmakers aping their Western counterparts week after week with over-plotted modern-tech-twisty action flicks. Saaho was a recent example. In that sense, it's only natural to overreact to, and over-welcome, the get-what-you-promise diligence of WAR. But this time, it's fine to be guilty of giddiness. We spend too long looking down upon the wealthy opulence of wasted mega-budget efforts. So much so that the mere sight of glossy mainstreamers becomes ominous. Here's one that doesn't get much wrong – and this alone suggests that WAR might be a franchise that turns high-octane kookiness into a 'homegrown' art-form. I'm just war-ried that there aren't enough legitimate young action stars – pretenders to Roshan's elastic throne – to extend this bromantic series. There are, however, plenty of old ones. With wickedly familiar smiles.