Friday 11 October 2019

Super smash bros: "War"

The 2019 Hindi release War shouldn't be mistaken for 2007's Jet Li/Jason Statham runaround of the same name, although its MO is not entirely dissimilar: repeatedly bash two chiselled lunks of wood together, as drummers do their sticks upon the commencement of battle, and hope enough of a crowd comes out to investigate what that rumbling sound might be. Lunk one is the honey-eyed, magnificently jawlined Hrithik Roshan as Kabir, a seething intelligence operative who's gone rogue while hunting India's most wanted terrormonger. Lunk two is Tiger Shroff as Kabir's sometime protege Khalid: upright and bulging, with a faintly concerned air, like an electric toothbrush bulked up on a diet of whey protein. The pair have previous. Khalid's dad once betrayed Kabir back in the day, and almost the entire first half is given over to detailing how the boys' paths bifurcated after one especially disastrous mission in the Middle East. But - man, oh man - how they look at each other, and how they dance together (this being one of Bollywood's now vaguely unfashionable masala movies, where national security successes are celebrated with scenes of uncommonly limber hoofing to hi-NRG dance music): with the certainty of hardened gym bunnies who know they've met the sparring partner of their dreams, or the one who might just blow them to kingdom come. As many observers have noted since War opened last week, any innuendo lurking in that phrase is very much there on the screen.

It needs to be said: from start to finish, War is near-total nonsense. It will take in, to cherrypick a few of its choicer developments, a villain who changes their identity - multiple times - with the assistance of India's top plastic surgeon; a cell phone hidden in a grilled rainbow trout; and a second half that comprehensively overturns the premise of the first. Furthermore, it's derivative nonsense: boiling down to that none-more-Nineties question "Where's the flashdrive?", this is an unapologetic throwback, which differentiates it from those recent Hindi films trying new or newish things while exploring the "new India". What War also is, though - and this is likely why audiences have turned out in such numbers for it over the past seven days - is an example of what can happen when a studio (in this instance, the equal parts rich and canny Yash Raj Films) invests properly in its nonsense. Several weeks ago, I found myself lamenting how cheap the medium-high octane action scenes in Angel Has Fallen looked: as if, in this post-2008 austerity moment, audiences were being asked to cheer for whatever dusty scuffles the remnants of the Hollywood system have left in them to kick up. (The summer's Hobbs & Shaw suffered from the same issue to a lesser degree, which is why it threw up the altogether prosaic sight of Idris Elba revving a motorcycle past a Greggs in Glasgow-passing-for-London. In this context, the return of the unstintingly profligate Jerry Bruckheimer with Gemini Man and the upcoming Bad Boys 3 cannot come soon enough, whatever the merits or otherwise of those movies.) 

War's budget (its War-chest?) bounces viewers breathlessly from Tikrit to the Gold Coast via the Med and the Arctic Circle, yet the producers' wisest investment came in backing the writer-director Siddharth Anand. Anand has clearly watched The Fugitive and Heat (and the local variations thereof) many times over: he knows the action form, and has a sharp, intuitive sense for what works within it. War has a simple, tried-and-tested concept - two men prepared to pursue one another to hell and back, or (as the above itinerary would frame it) to the ends of the earth - but it's simple enough not to require undue explanation, and simple enough for the movie not to come a cropper over it. It's simply there to yank us through the carnage at top speed; it's all we can do to hold on and see where it carries everybody. The action scenes - Tiger's one-man raid on a druglord's mansion (an apparent single take that establishes Anand's eye for spatial continuity), Hrithik's Mission: Impossible-ish takedown of a military supply plane from above, a razz around the backstreets of a Portuguese coastal berg - are absurdly big. Thumping, too, whenever they approach the matter of hand-to-hand combat: it's a multiplex-bound actioner that wears its 15 certificate as a badge of honour. Four action directors are credited, and each looks to have brought something worthwhile to the table. The setpieces are predominantly analogue (as opposed to digitised), making jolting use of those stunt teams who've been sitting round twiddling their thumbs since the first green screen was rigged up, and they retain an appreciable internal logic: however stroboscopic the editing gets, we never lose sight of which character's out front, and who's playing catch-up.

With responsibility for these expensive money shots delegated, Anand seems to have enjoyed himself mightily catching the grace notes that emerge in the midst of this mayhem, much as car windscreens catch flies when propelled at speeds of 70mph and beyond. A flaw Kabir identifies in Khalid's peripheral vision during an early training sequence inevitably returns to narrative play come the finale; there's something very charming in the way the boyish Khalid (Shroff arrives here off of May's Student of the Year 2) refers - or defers - to Kabir as "sir" long after the latter has been established as India's most wanted; and when Kabir removes his wraparound shades and tosses them up in the air mid-shootout to see in their reflective lenses the exact whereabouts of those firing on him, style is successfully wedded to function. Even the faintly sappy post-intermission scene in which Kabir schools the orphan girl he's inherited on his travels (told you it was nonsense) as to the lessons one can take from a school soccer game - "It doesn't matter who wins or loses, so long as you can say you've given your best" - seems to reflect Anand's own plan of action. Watching War, you get the impression (sadly rare in big-budget cinema) that everyone - especially Hrithik, never more so than when piloting a motorbike away from a fireball while sporting a replacement pair of sunglasses - gave of this ridiculous material their very best, which is why it emerges as the year's most unexpectedly enjoyable popcorn movie.

War is now showing in cinemas nationwide.

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