Sunday 6 November 2011

Real steal: "RA-One"

Bollywood's most expensive venture ever, and its biggest global hit for some time, RA-One skews young - shot in the 3D of countless Western timepassers, released to mark the onset of both Diwali and half-term - but it's no less enjoyable for that. Shah Rukh Khan, in a very funny wig, plays Shekhar, London-based computer game programmer by day, by night an embarrassing dad so dorky he tips anybody who tries to mug him. To impress his delinquent son, Shekhar invents a virtual-reality game boasting the world's baddest bad guy: the eponymous Random Access-One, whose acronym happens to chime with the demonic raavan of Hindi lore. As anyone who's read Frankenstein, or seen Robocop, will have already guessed, such inventions cannot pass entirely without incident: sure enough, the villain soon assumes a life of his own, threatening everything Shekhar holds dear, while also encouraging him to upgrade to the hero status his son badly wants for him.

If you like, then, this is Bollywood disappearing into the same virtual realm its Hollywood equivalent has spent the past two decades giving into; I'm not entirely sure what those grandmothers who sniffled their way through the star's previous smashes Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge and Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham... are going to make of something this pulsing and relentlessly modern. (Does 3D even work on cataracts?) RA-One takes some while setting up the game world, which is presumably where the money went, but this is scarcely an original vision, with scenes and design work that come close to infringing the copyrights on Iron Man, The Matrix and Terminator 2 before it. Seems blockbusters the world over are becoming scrapyards, sorting and welding together the remnants of rusting movie glories, and hoping we'll still accept the offer of a ride.

Aurally, too, RA-One proves altogether familiar: while one recurring musical theme rather wonderfully mashes up Ben E. King's "Stand By Me", another song, "Criminal", recalls less the playback artists of yore than the kind of formula R&B ("It's criminal/The way that booty go pop pop pop") with which Usher and Nelly have clogged up Western pop charts. (It is with a wearying inevitability that I discover said song "features" Akon.) In moments like these, even the core audience may find themselves longing for a form of Hindi cinema Brett Ratner couldn't, or wouldn't know how to, remix. What saves it as widescreen spectacle is that at a crucial point - set up by the introduction of a rose, which may, in a film so profligate in its references, be a nod to Woody Allen - what was once virtual comes crashing into our world, which gives the effects technicians a few days off and director Anubhav Sinha more varied narrative and location options to work with.

So it is that RA-One can be observed scanning for opponents from the top of St. Paul's, flinging parked cars at his nemesis (Shekhar, in the new guise of G-One: "it's Hindi for 'life'", apparently) round the back of Tate Modern, and later causing the wholesale destruction of a prominent Indian railway landmark. In fact, RA-One - like many blockbusters before it - may just contain more of this world than it perhaps realises: it's both dubious and fascinating that RA-One itself originally assumes the form of a Chinese co-worker of Shekhar's, turning at least the first half into a direct battle between China and India for the future of a new generation. Despite the London backdrop, the British are reduced to mere onlookers, left reading the papers on the top deck of one of the double-deckers RA-One careens through, though I enjoyed the knife-wielding hoodie who turns out to be fluent in Hindi, and gets away with his crime: see kids, it really does pay to have a second language.

In the second half, the villain regenerates into a billboard model, which may be a comment on the dangers of capitalism run rampant, or merely a Marxist stretch on my part (the film's opening list of "brand partners" is substantial, to say the least). Whatever, Khan's willingness to play goofy, and suffer repeated damage to his testicular area because of it, is beyond all question, and makes for much of the film's charm; a cameo from Rajnikanth, reprising his role from last year's similarly expensive blockbuster Endhiran/The Robot, is looks-good-on-the-poster windowdressing, though Kareena Kapoor does what she can in the genre-typical role of the loving mum left on the sidelines while father and son work through their parenting issues.

The welcome surprise is that RA-One never gets as sappy as you fear it might (and any direct American equivalent almost certainly would). Instead, the second half relocates to India, and starts tossing fun, sometimes funny ideas around anew: a fat man on a trampoline, say, or the robots interrupting a noisy school trip during a full-throttle train excursion half-inched shamelessly from Tony Scott's Unstoppable. More welding here, then, but the finished product, right down to its cute anti-smoking message, is in one sense the kind of harmless family entertainment Hollywood has forgotten how to assemble. There's no pressing reason why anyone might now, at this moment in cinema history, want to see a Bicentennial Man or Meet Dave done well, but if they did, then RA-One would be it. You certainly get your money's worth.

RA-One is in cinemas nationwide.

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