Thursday 16 November 2023

Curse of the cat person: "Tiger 3"

Tiger series of Hindi action films launched with Ek Tha Tiger in summer 2012, soon after Tom Cruise took the Mission: Impossible franchise to cartoonish new heights by scaling the Burj Khalifa singlehandedly. It expanded via Tiger Zinda Hai, the big Indian blockbuster of Christmas 2017, and - because everything now has to be part of some willy-waggling corporate superstructure - has since been appropriated as the foundation stone of the so-called Yash Raj Spy Universe, which has subsequently kicked out such crowdpleasers as 2019's War and this past January's Pathaan, in which Tiger star Salman Khan briefly gueststarred. Despite all the huffing and puffing and relentless back and forth, the Tiger films' strongest throughline has actually been the growing alliance between Khan's burly, bescarfed, daal-cooking special forces legend Avinash "Tiger" Rathore Singh and his sometime ISI opposite number, then sidekick, now wife Zoya (Katrina Kaif), who renounced international skulduggery for love; somewhere in series lore is the suggestion that watching one another's backs may be the ideal of a relationship for India and Pakistan. (It may be notable that the series began in a decade when Bollywood was far more interested in building bridges - as per Khan's 2015 megahit Bajrangi Bhaijaan - than waving flags or throwing rocks.) 

The most intriguing story idea Tiger 3 stumbles across comes early, with the insinuation Zoya might have been playing a very long game as a deeper-than-deep cover double agent, someone prepared to marry Salman Khan and bear him a child with the intention of undermining the fragile peace between neighbouring nations. The entire first act plays like a welcome rewrite of True Lies, one in which Jamie Lee Curtis is unmasked as a pivotal player in international subterfuge, more than ready to stick a rocket launcher up her secretive husband's backside. (You'd watch that movie, right?) Disappointingly, however, this proves to be but an opening feint. The bulk of the new film falls back on stock action sequel beats, with a new villain - Emraan Hashmi's ambitious puppetmaster Aatish Rehman - manipulating established characters. Audiences are being given more of what it's assumed they like and want; plot once again becomes pretext for a succession of varyingly spectacular setpieces.

The great virtue (perhaps even saving grace) of these films is their speed. From an early stage in their genesis, someone - most likely uber-producer Aditya Chopra, who again takes a story credit here - clearly decided the best way to proceed with this kind of profitable nonsense is to barrel onwards, chin, elbows and knees all raised. Tiger 3's globetrotting throws up copious nonsense in its wake, capably zipped through by Fan director Maneesh Sharma: a protect-the-asset pursuit through St. Petersburg (or non-hostile stand-in) during which Khan appears to have disguised himself as early 1980s Billy Connolly; a girl-on-girl fight between Kaif and Chinese assassin Michelle Lee that replays the sauna scene from Eastern Promises, and concludes with the two actresses trying to preserve the modesty of a 12A-rated action flick by grappling over the same towel; a final punch-up in a boiler room overflowing with so much dry ice it starts to resemble the set of a kids' TV music show from the turn of the Nineties. (You half-expect Gaz Top to wander on and introduce Let Loose.) Along the way, we dash through more of that backroom politicking that differentiates this series from the essentially apolitical and escapist M:I franchise: the Khan-Hashmi relationship is something like the Cruise-Hoffman business in M:I3, only if the latter had aspirations to overthrowing the democratically elected Prime Minister of Pakistan. 

Still, this remains a bro's franchise at heart, paying extended tribute to the efficacy of its leading man's leg days. Kaif is once more sidelined beyond a certain point, dressed like a stagehand when, as closing musical number "Leke Prabhu Ka Naam" vibrantly illustrates, the gal was born to dance; the most conspicuous choreography before that comes when Khan and a cameoing co-star perform synchronised forward rolls while clutching semiautomatic firearms. (The sequence yields one grace note, when the pair try to walk quietly away from an onrushing enemy chopper, hands in pockets.) As in so many of his recent star vehicles, Khan looks to have flexed his muscle at a certain juncture: supporting characters recede, leaving us to observe Tiger thumping that half of Pakistan that's been plotting against the other. (The racial politics are 50-50.) To his credit, the star appears in far better shape than he did amid the shambles of April's Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ka Jaan: if the character of Tiger continues to defy all known laws of physics, the actor at least resembles someone you might well look towards to save the day or sustain a wet Wednesday night out. But that's about all Tiger 3 does, really: dully competent in hitting its story and action beats, it makes the eruptive colour and fireworks of Pathaan seem greatly more than a year old. One of Tiger's assignments is given the codename "Mission Time Pass", which you could say is everything for which this creative team signed up. Time sure passes in Tiger 3, like the seasons, or like water after a Tango Ice Blast; the one artistic consolation is that dull competence represents an undeniable step up on some of this leading man's recent output.

Tiger 3 is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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