Dir: Kabir Khan. With: Saif Ali Khan, Katrina Kaif, Rajesh Tailang, Denzil Smith. 136 mins. Cert: 15
Just as 9/11 gave rise, after an appropriate mourning period, to a decade of soul- and cave-searching in American cinema, so the spectre of the 26/11 attacks on Mumbai in 2008 seems likely to hover over Indian cinema for the foreseeable future. Already we’ve had 2013’s Greengrassy docudrama The Attacks of 26/11, the veteran Ram Gopal Varma’s sober recounting of these events from the perspective of Rakesh Maria, the Mumbai chief of police. There now arrives Phantom, Kabir Khan’s adaptation of Hussain Zaidi’s speculative fiction Mumbai Avengers, which owes more to the 24/Homeland school of counterterrorism, vacillating as it does between pulpy pertinence and arrant wish-fulfilment.
Objections have already been lodged by both Médecins Sans Frontières and the suspected Pakistani terrorist Hafiz Saeed, suggesting action specialist Khan is operating on a broad spectrum of offence. Yet this pacy film propels us through its problematic patches, and also proves unexpectedly telling as to how insecure India feels over the fact the attack’s masterminds remain at large, from the moment a policy wonk decries the lack of an official response: “All we do is stop playing cricket”. Enter the Jack Bauer-like Daniyal Khan (Saif Ali Khan), a disgraced army officer sent on a hushed-up mission to flush the killers out, deploying methods that really aren’t cricket.
As Daniyal barrels around – from the Oval via the Middle East to a final date with destiny in Pakistani waters – he gathers an aid worker sidekick (Katrina Kaif), and the tension that exists between these two represents a split that surely exists within Indian intelligence ranks: she urging caution, data-collection and the need to play the long game, he dashing around terminating, wherever possible, with extreme prejudice. You’ll just have to overlook the fact that as shadow operatives go, the well-groomed Saif and the ever-lipglossed Kaif form a couple broadly as inconspicuous as the Kardashian Wests; their movements don’t demand surveillance so much as a Vanity Fair spread.
Jolting dashes of realpolitik continue to permeate the action: the heads of a Pakistan-based terror organisation opt to meet Daniyal in Syria, reasoning that nobody will notice another dead body there. Yet the director is far more adept at constructing taut assassination set-pieces than he is at diplomacy: the incendiary editorial on Pakistan is handled with rather less than due diligence. The film does something very dubious with Kaif’s character, introduced flashing her “Medicine International” credentials as a voice of reason: after key scenes go missing around the intermission, she’s suddenly – like so many characters in 24 – transformed into a moist-eyed apologist for the hero’s bloodier responses. You can see why MSF would be irked.
They won’t be the only ones, for Phantom displays that unique pulp mix of motion and emotion that is compelling and revealing, but also deeply discomfiting to encounter. This relentless, reckless, wounded-bull-in-a-china-shop production is fuelled by a violence you can see in the leading man’s eyes and feel in its whiplash crosscuts, all of it directed towards getting hold of the attackers, and not necessarily bringing them to justice. (With lyrics like “I couldn’t handle this atrocity of love”, even the songs sound like calls to arms.) That violence gives Khan’s film its undeniable grip and punch – but we might pause to consider whether this region hasn’t seen and heard enough of it already.
Phantom is now showing in cinemas nationwide.