PLAYERS. Director: Abbas Mustaan. Players: Vinod Khanna, Abhishek Bachchan, Bobby Deol, Neil Nitin Mukesh, Bipasha Basu, Sonam Kapoor, Sikander Kher, Johny Lever. Music: Pritam. Theatrical release (Viacom).
The Hollywood mini-franchise The Italian Job spun off entries in 1969 and then again in 2003—and hit bulls-eye in the car-chase/action genre both times. The good news in Mumbai was not just how much producer Mohammed Burmawala paid to acquire rights to make a Hindi remake—a sizable bounty, no doubt—but that he actually acquired rights to reconstruct an iconic Hollywood action standard-bearer. The bad news is that even with flashy cars and loose women, Burmawala’s money could have been better spent elsewhere.
A smart thief (Bachchan), under the tutelage of a jailed aging criminal mastermind (Khanna), brings together a rag tag gang of unscrupulous international-types for a once-in-lifetime heist to rob a gold treasure being shipped on a heavily guarded train trekking across the vast Russian tundra. Because a wily grand illusionist (Deol), a lock-pick (Kher), a high-octane driver (Mukesh), a tech specialist (Kapoor), and all-around femme fatale (Basu) are not enough, they also enlist help from an unwitting auto-mechanic (Lever) to pull off the caper.
The action is often fast-paced and staged surprisingly taut, attributable to director-duo brothers Abbas Mastan having honed their chops with Khiladi, Soldier, and Baazigar (back when Shahrukh Khan made interesting movies). To put together this large a contingent of “Russian” soldiers guarding what was once part of the Romanov’s royal treasury is a significant feat. With stolen identities, face masks and smooth-talking con men galore, the filmmakers are gung-ho in sailing forth a techie, post-cold war thriller.
What gets in the way of this being a successful action entry is having too many writers, or so it seems. The plotting appears too eager to bridge a desi gap between Mission: Impossible and The Italian Job and misses out on both fronts. Khanna’s presence as a supposed Godfather-like crime boss transforms him into a caricature of petty criminals. Since Bachchan has recently made his mark in cop roles (Dhoom, Dum Maaro Dum), his gang leader MO is lightweight.
Flashy cars and helicopter chases can only go so far without subtle interplay between so many leads vying for a piece of the golden pie. And yet the chemistry between the characters is nowhere to be found. Perfectly likable characters are done away with at a moment’s notice and, this being a Hindi film, we suddenly set a detour for fundraising for an orphanage. Also, why should we believe that the villain lives in a house that resembles the seat of parliament for a second-tier country?
Then there is the B-movie formulaic musical layout. Why oh why does Kapoor break out into a song as soon as she enters the villain’s lair without as much as a hello? Pritam’s soundtrack is fairly combustible on its own merit, but the dance-floor hooks it offers seem far fetched when juxtaposed against the search for the gold loot and figuring out the double-crosses the gold leaves in its wake.
The best Hindi car chase/action entries were Dhoom and Dhoom 2 that successfully blended cutting-edge stunts with plausible acting and plot graphs. Here, the inability to tightly rein in all the characters into one seamless narrative reveals only a two-dimensional set up that never rises above the drawing board the Burmawalas envisioned all this on.
Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.