Monday 30 October 2023

Beasts of the Southern wild: "Leo"

Out East, the Tamil hit Leo has been drawing eyes as both the latest vehicle for rumpled, bedheaded matinee idol Vijay and a further extension of the so-called Lokesh Cinematic Universe, now a trilogy of loosely connected films - directed by hip young gunslinger Lokesh Kanagaraj - pitting cops against drugrunners. In the West, the film might just raise a cinephile eyebrow or two as a new take on the John Wagner/Vince Locke comic book previously adapted by screenwriter Josh Olson for 2005's A History of Violence. Not for Kanagaraj the slowburn David Cronenberg approach to this material: Vijay's hero Parthiban is introduced singlehandedly rescuing a school full of moppets from a ravenous hyena, in what instantly presents as a strong contender for 2023's most leftfield setpiece. Having thus established the normally mild-mannered proprietor of the Wild Beans Café as a figure with a certain set of skills, this camera sticks around to watch as Parthiban does much the same to spare his small, snowy, mountain-adjacent town from the vanload of hairy ne'er-do-wells passing through, and then himself and his family from druglords following the bloodtrails left behind. Kanagaraj isn't interested in the ambiguities and perversity Cronenberg located in the source. Wagner's plot has been straightened out into the latter-day Western the earlier film only gestured towards, driven by a hero who is absolutely a hero - a man who walks out of the courtroom hearing his self-defence case with not just a pardon but a National Bravery Award to boot - doing at every turn what a hero, which in this cinema is almost always a man, has got to do. This version is vastly more expansive and explosive than the tautly simmering Cronenberg film, 
which possibly explains why Leo opened Top 10 in the US and Top 5 in the UK, but its internal workings and politics are also notably more conservative. For one reason or another, I spent much of it with the phrase just say no bouncing around inside my head.

The movie runs a marathon 164 minutes, but you don't have to look far or long for signs of that conservatism. Trisha, an active participant in Mani Ratnam's magnificent Ponniyin Selvan diptych, is here reduced to the status of brow-furrowing wife and inevitable damsel-in-distress. (Unlike Maria Bello in the Cronenberg History, she doesn't even get to bust out the cheerleader garb: it's the direction that most aggressively shakes its pompoms for our guy.) Anirudh Ravichander's songs are so on-the-nose they practically constitute a clip round the ear: bellows of "I'm shit-scared" to establish the threat facing the family, while the revelation of Parthiban's secret identity cues the almost admirably primitive couplet "Mr. Leo Das is a badass/He's gonna kick your sad ass". A further show of basic-bitch intent comes with the arrival of the film's ultimate big bad: Kanagaraj sends on no-one so sly as William Hurt, rather the brute force of Sanjay Dutt as a tobacco-growing Satanist. (Transferrable skills, maybe?) To be fair, having straightened out the central conflict like a wet locker room towel, Kanagaraj gives it a fair flick for his setpieces: a colossal fist fight that comprehensively does for the fixtures of the Wild Beans Café, a cavalry charge home that sees Parthiban mount a gleaming white stallion (told you he was a hero), a genuinely inventive warehouse set-to viewed from the POV of a hawk circling the action. What's been lost in translation is Olson/Cronenberg's stealth and guile. Where the earlier film found ways to metabolise its hero's backstory, Leo's second half grinds to a halt with a flashback that briefs latecomers and opens up a strain of filmi self-reflexivity (including a jokey Anurag Kashyap cameo) but never feels anything other than superfluous. Its presence ensures Leo fits the template of the needlessly overextended multiplex actioner: while bigger and longer than the Cronenberg equivalent, this history of violence is also notably thinner, somewhere between stirring and lumbering on a scene-by-scene basis and forgettable thereafter. Amid its punchdrunk final act - taking in CG pile-ups, gardens full of mantraps and ugly cuts to ensure the 15 certificate - I began to wonder whether this wasn't one of those remakes compiled with exhausting enthusiasm by a fanboy who'd completely missed his inspiration's point.

Leo is now playing in selected cinemas.

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