Director: AR Murugadoss
Cast: Mahesh Babu, SJ Suryah, Rakul Preet Singh
The pre-interval stretch of Spyder may be the best thing AR Murugadoss wrote and directed. It has the resonance of myth. We witness the birth of the villain, the birth of Evil, in a graveyard — a cut whisks us from the wails of mourners to the infant's ear. This single editing choice fills us in on the character's psychology: he grows up around grief, he celebrates grief, and when there's a lull in the death rate, he will kill, cause fresh bouts of grief and get off on it. As an adult, he wears an axe pendant, though he prefers a knife. Salivating over a prospective victim, he coos, "Ippo vettina raththam sooda varum." (If I cut him up now, hot blood will bubble up.) He's a glorious madman.
It's wonderful that this villain doesn't want anything. He isn't after money. He doesn't seek world domination, like a Bond villain. He just wants to kill. Like Christopher Nolan's Joker, he is pure Id
And SJ Suryah plays him gloriously, his unhinged mind reflected in lanky hair that keeps falling over his face. He gets the best lines, and he spits them out with glee. Before meeting the character, we are given a heck of a build-up that goes into genuinely dark places — stories about chopped bodies, mixed-up limbs — and Suryah lives up to this reputation. It's wonderful that this villain doesn't want anything. He isn't after money. He doesn't seek world domination, like a Bond villain. He just wants to kill. Like Christopher Nolan's Joker, he is pure Id. The problem with Tamil and Telugu masala movies has always been finding a worthy successor to Prakash Raj, and we've made do with a series of north-Indian imports who look more like models. Suryah restores the balance.
Which makes Mahesh Babu's performance — or rather, presence — all the more impressive. It's never easy being a straight guy against such a flamboyant opponent. But the actor is helped by his unflappable countenance, his Swiss-finishing-school demeanour. He carries the most serene aura since NTR — and what could be perceived as weaknesses (you wish he'd lose it at times, go wild, get more romantic, get angrier) turn into a towering strength in this story that's not based on a topical issue and thus plays out on a more mythical plane than most masala movies. (The key conceit is call tapping, using technology to know what everyone is saying and doing: in other words, omniscience.) There's no better actor to play God against SJ Suryah's Demon. The hero's name? Shiva!
Had Murugadoss tapped more strongly into this vein (for instance, a better hero-introduction scene), Spyder would have been the great masala movie he's been threatening to make for a while — but it's still pretty good. The writing is super-smooth. Even the mandatory message is just a bit at the end. I wish the film had been shorter, but at least, we aren't asked to endure wisecracks just because RJ Balaji plays Shiva's best friend/colleague, or put up with too much manic-pixie-ness from Rakul Preet Singh's heroine. (Bonus point for introducing her character as part of Shiva's job and not randomly helping children cross the street.) I perked up when she says she doesn't want love, only what Shiva calls a "friend with benefits." The film doesn't really go there, but it's nice to see the virginity requirement for our heroines being eased. Baby steps, I guess.
It's a terrific touch that the hero sometimes fails to save lives, but the resultant sadness and rage aren't really exploited. And as the film goes on, the energy levels flag
There are bits from other films: the one-line from Minority Report, the Scarecrow's mask from the Dark Knight films, the amusement-park action set piece from Face/Off (or its predecessor, Strangers on a Train). But the "Indianisation" — if that's the word for it — is nicely done. There are many fun moments, like in Thuppakki. Like how Shiva saves his family during a power cut. Like a marvellous masala moment where a pretend gun is countered with a real one. Like the crazily audacious way Shiva enlists housewives in a dangerous mission. I was half-laughing, but mad props for even thinking of middle-aged women as action heroines. This sequence is set to Kunnakudi Vaidyanathan's Marudhamalai maamaniye, and the last sigh of Muruga! is used perfectly.
One reason these parts are more memorable than the whole is that pre-interval stretch — the subsequent portions pale in comparison. It's a terrific touch that the hero sometimes fails to save lives, but the resultant sadness and rage aren't really exploited. And as the film goes on, the energy levels flag. The screen is busy with event, propelled by Harris Jayaraj's choruses, but the pulse remains steady. An action scene with a boulder is an anti-climax, but the one in a disintegrating hospital (a bomb just went off) is shot (Santosh Sivan) and cut (Sreekar Prasad) well. The levels of the building and falling debris add a three-dimensionality we don't usually get in these hero-versus-villain fist fights. In an interview with Film Companion, Murugadoss said 7aum Arivu didn't work because he tried to pack in too much. He doesn't make that mistake in Spyder.