Director: R. Ajay Gnanamuthu
Cast: Chiyaan Vikram, Srinidhi Shetty, Irfan Pathan, Roshan Mathew
As with most scripts actor Vikram is drawn to, a lack of effort or a shortage of ideas are seldom reasons why the final film ends up disappointing us. Like most of his recent films, Cobra too goes all out in all directions. It's ambitious to a fault and it's difficult to place this thriller into any one template we've seen before. Parts of it might seem derivative, but when the film's fresh ideas click into place you feel drawn to the original vision, seduced by moments of glory that deserved a better film.
I felt the full rush of this high in a beautifully imagined surreal stretch set in St.Petersburg. It's a scene that builds up to a high-tension hit-job where Madhi (Vikram) feels trapped, moments away from getting caught. An assassin and a mathematical genius, Madhi has so far had the perfect record, succeeding in taking out every target he's been assigned. But with the Interpol closing in, he has seconds to wriggle out of a particularly sticky situation. In what the film has prepared you for until then, all you're expecting is one more clever way in which Madhi escapes. The film may also surprise you with Madhi pulling off the impossible and assassinating the target he's there for. Even with the tension building and with time running out, the director slams the brakes and chooses to take us away into a dream sequence deep within Madhi's psyche. New characters are brought to life in this dream and existing ones assume fresh meaning. With this giant leap of faith, an ordinary film about a slippery assassin suddenly turns into a story about a vulnerable man with innumerable ways to escape the police, but not one to escape his past.
It's a surprisingly perceptive turn to take in a film you had dismissed as too over-the-top and kitschy to display any real nuance. The first hour of the film is particularly bloated and showy. In fact, the film is so quick to show off its money bags that the first 15 minutes flash you with half a dozen countries and an equal number of Vikrams. The result is dizzying, like a hundred neon lights being pointed at you. The film's world doesn't get constructed like it should have been and the motivations of the characters are far beyond us.
Instead of detailing vital bits of information we need for the film to matter to us, Cobra goes ballistic by explaining how smart the hero is using math lectures. There's nothing sexy about the idea of a math genius in this context, but the film tries hard to connect the dots to make it look cool. To make this point, the writers use the assassination of a CM as a full display of genius. But when his modus operandi is finally revealed, what surprises you is hardly his mathematical ability. What I was fascinated by was his perfect aim and his ability to walk in so easily into a high-security event. And even if you're willing to suspend disbelief in these scenes, I kept calculating how much more money Madhi could have made doing makeup tutorials on Instagram rather than working as a part-time assassin.
And because his motivations are unclear, we don't even know why he's risking so much and the impact his money is generating (we get a shot of him giving it all to charity). It's also unclear why hipster billionaire Rishi (an unhinged Roshan Mathew) would risk so much to tackle an issue he could easily have dealt with using other means.
Which is to say you're really caught off-guard when the film surprises you pleasantly with the aforementioned dream sequence. When seen along with a corresponding scene in the second half (the film's highlight), one can only imagine what could have been had the film chosen to stick to this particular conceit rather than stuffing itself with a dozen more. And when you're working with an actor like Vikram who can pretty much do everything, the challenge is often knowing when to stop.
But such moments of brilliance are too distant and isolated to hold together a three-hour film. And when the film chooses to take a path that begins at the interval twist, you're once again taken back to the stretch at the start where the film expects you to be wowed by twists alone. This is also where it turns into a convoluted mess with so much back and forth that finally, we stop caring. The action scenes have nothing new to offer and even AR Rahman's score can only soften the blow when the film moves from one far-fetched sequence to another.
Eventually, it's these disjointed ideas that leave you most disappointed. It's one thing to feel bad after watching a movie that has nothing going for it at all, but with Cobra, you come so close to moments of ingenuity that you just want to watch the movie that was in the director's head. And when you see Vikram perform so earnestly through a series of disjointed stretches, you feel so bad for the actor who is constantly let down by the films he chooses. Ever since Anniyan, the solution to fix every Vikram film seems to be to add even more Vikrams to the script. With Cobra too following this principle, it's perhaps time to ask how many Vikrams are too much in one film.