Tuesday 24 January 2023

Money heist: "Thunivu"

Early days, of course, but the Tamil heist movie
Thunivu boasts the most gripping first act of the year so far. After a prologue laying out the extent of the fraud being perpetuated within the Indian financial system, we're introduced to a stern-faced crew of Chennai bank robbers conspiring with a corrupt police chief to empty a vault stuffed to the rafters with people's savings. The crew duly storm the bank, do away with security and empty several rounds of ammunition into the ceiling, only to encounter silver-haired star Ajith Kumar embedded in a backroom; he promptly blows away a couple of the intruders, informing the surviving arrivistes that they are, in fact, cutting in on his carefully scheduled heist. "Tell me," goes a musical sting heard at this point, "Who da gangsta?" Assisted by the aptly named Vijay Velukutty's propulsive editing, writer-director H. Vinoth sketches a brisk yet appreciably detailed picture of a situation spiralling rapidly out of control, of floors littered both with banknotes and the remnants of everybody's best laid plans. It's not just that first set of robbers who find themselves outmanoeuvred; the rotten police chief is left powerless once outside agencies are drafted in to mediate, cranked-up TV news begins picketing the public to identify Kumar's ringleader/ringmaster, and the petrified bankers start pulling strings with paid-for political representatives. Our hero, meanwhile, further confounds the cops surrounding the premises by asking not for a car or a helicopter, but a getaway submarine, which really is a gangster move, however seriously you take it.

Vinoth, clearly, has discovered Dog Day Afternoon, and with it the idea of the mainstream thriller that also, in passing, offers a measure of droll social commentary. As early as a half-hour into Thunivu, he persuades us that this will be the most urgent, volatile and fast-moving situation we will witness all day; the movie goes beyond the rowdiness typically associated with Tamil cinema to become actively relentless in its momentum. There is talk of a third stick-up team lying undiscovered inside the bank; the building opposite, which the police commandeer as their temporary HQ, is found to have been comprehensively bugged; and in one narrative sidebar, some miles from the primary crime scene, we watch a small child being dangled headfirst over lethal-looking quarrying equipment. (The film has been recut by its UK distributor - visibly, and quite bluntly - so as to obtain a family-friendly 12A certificate, but many of Vinoth's harder edges remain.) The final act yields the terrific image of a fire truck loaded with plastic explosives; a subsequent oceanic pursuit, presumably where that submarine would have come in useful, instead deploys every last speedboat in Asia. It's not all blunt force: the great American critic Manny Farber would surely have savoured the feel Vinoth demonstrates for the street outside the bank, the relationship between two adjacent buildings, the softness of the Chennai light. But then some dolt triggers the explosives wired to the bank's entrance and it's chaos all over again, this time with a huge great crater in the middle of the road and sandbags scattered everywhere, like battlefield casualties. If you're hoping for light relief from the songs, think again: the first number ends with heavies in hoodies chanting the letters "AK", asserting not just our hero's initials but his character's weapon of choice.

Vinoth has to put his mayhem on hold at the start of the second half to explain how everybody's ended up at the same place at the same time; he defers on motivation and backstory the way some folks do on loan repayments. Yet even here there is invention to be treasured, in the dovetailing of two distinct narratives, and how the film deploys its leading man. This is, granted, the kind of role by which aging stars have traditionally sought to shore up diminishing cool: the bad-ass mastermind, forever a step or two ahead of the game. Yet it takes a star's supreme self-confidence to settle into a characterisation whose motives are obscured this long - who risks being written off as just as nefarious, as in it for the money, as everyone else on screen seems to be. There are elements that Kumar can't pull off: it doesn't matter that this character's alias is "Michael Jackson" - presumably as his methods are neither black nor white - any fiftysomething man is going to look a bit of a prat moonwalking in denim and trainers. (Kumar appears far more comfortable planting himself in one of the bank's swivel chairs and whistling "We Will Rock You". Who da grandpa?) Yet his broad-shouldered resoluteness becomes an asset in the midst in Vinoth's various firestorms: you buy him as someone who might put his foot down and refuse to leave even after the banking sector has triggered its alarms. Kumar's trying something sly and slow-burning here, but as a live TV interview late on punches up, his "Michael" is a burly repository for the Tamil cinema's latent Marxist tendencies, peddling the ever more potent fantasy of getting one over on our shifty corporate overlords. If that prologue is to be believed, enough Indian viewers will have been shafted by their financial providers to buy that for a dollar (or whatever's left to hand). For British onlookers, there's the draw of seeing a character who resembles Money Box's Paul Lewis as played by Ray Winstone, reconditioning a cruel system with a sockful of pennies.

Thunivu is now playing in selected cinemas.

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