Leo Movie Review: A roar settles into a whimper

Leo Movie Review: A roar settles into a whimper

There are plenty of joys to be found in the first half of this film that begins by acknowledging the influence of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence
Rating:(3 / 5)

There’s a popular Tamil adage that goes, “Sandai na sattai kizhiya dhaan seiyum…” So, yes, of course, Parthiban’s (Vijay) shirts were always going to be in dire danger. He exists in a Lokesh Kanagaraj film, complete with gangsters and bloodshed. Poor Parthiban can’t catch a break, with each of his new shirts getting destroyed in unique ways. They get stained in blood, they get slashed with weapons, and at one point, someone even burns it off. It’s a running gag almost. It’s also why Parthiban’s wife Sathya (Trisha) picks up an argument with him when we first meet them. Nothing much comes off from the moment though.

The Lokesh universe isn’t known for these cutesy conversations; foremost among the joys is how he sets up and executes action blocks. Parthiban, as you can imagine, does plenty of fighting in this film, and my most favourite is when it happens the first time in the film. The location is his coffee-shop, and the setup is a delight. Parthiban and Chintu, his daughter, are having this goofy moment. There’s an old song being played—‘Karu Karu Karuppayi’ from Eazhaiyin Sirippil (and I love how Lokesh picks these unexpected hits)—and this, of course, means a fight is around the corner. A worker is finishing her shift; meanwhile, a bad man has entered the café and hot on his heels are his associates. Lokesh takes his time. He gets Parthiban to dance a bit; he lets the scene breathe; he allows, like Tarantino does so well, the anticipation to rise and when mayhem comes calling, it’s fantastic to behold. Parthiban’s change of mood is fascinating; I also loved how the two words ‘Chocolate coffee’ communicate something different each time they are uttered in this scene. The first time it’s said, it’s an order; then, it turns into a threat; and finally, it becomes a joke.

Director: Lokesh Kanagaraj

Cast: Vijay, Trisha, Sanjay Dutt, Arjun, Gautham Vasudev Menon

There are plenty of joys to be found in the first half of this film that begins by acknowledging the influence of Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005). This is a familiar template for those of us raised on the charms of hero-centric cinema. Is the protagonist pretending to be a family man? Does he have a history of violence? When will the crowd-pleasing transformation occur? Where this film (and A History of Violence) differs from, say, a Baasha or a Theri (to pick an example from Vijay’s own oeuvre), is how the film resists the easy transformation for mass effect—and how the protagonist seems almost to be suffering from self-delusion. Leo brings in yet another factor into this dynamic. It suggests that perhaps Parthiban and Leo are two different people entirely. This got me thinking about the multiple versions of ourselves that live within, and how keen we are to encourage certain qualities, while suppressing certain others. Is Parthiban going just one level further? Then, of course, it requires tremendous self-delusion—as suggested by Anthony Das (Sanjay Dutt) at one point. And yet, I’m not sure Leo, the film, shows as much interest as, A History of Violence, in digging into the psychological ramifications of this exercise—or in its effect on those around Parthiban. It’s restricted to isolated snapshots—of Parthiban screaming during a fight, of rebellion from Parthiban’s son, Siddharth, of brief suspicion from Sathya. The film doesn’t necessarily follow through on these ideas.

Many of the joys in Leo’s first half come after the world at large begins to notice Parthiban. Remember the rise we got in Baasha when a police commissioner invites Manickam to the police station for a visit? We don’t yet know who he is or what could happen—but just the possibilities are enough to get us going. Similarly, once Parthiban begins making noise, we see ruffled feathers in places like Mumbai and Salem and Telangana—and it builds the anticipation for rich payoffs (that they don’t necessarily come is a different matter altogether). But for a while, just the build-up towards Parthiban’s boiling point seems entertaining enough. A particular high-point is when hundreds of gangsters stand around in a factory and someone compares a photo of Parthiban with another framed photograph by shattering its glass-casing. It’s a fantastic visual moment, especially with Anirudh joining in with "Badass-u Ma".

In this enjoyable first half, Lokesh Kanagaraj breaks many rules of the hero-centric film format. There’s no introduction song. There’s no fuss made over showing us Vijay and Trisha for the first time. When the Vijay title animation card comes up with the now-famous ‘Thalapathy’ chorus scream, I enjoyed that it’s not following an act of violence but a heroic act of kindness—even if his shirt is blood-stained. When the film’s tagline ‘bloody sweet’ is said for the first time, I liked that Parthiban isn’t saying it as a punchline, but as a regular response to a question asked by his daughter. It feels like Vijay is well and truly invested in playing this almost crazy man, with all his jagged edges. He's screaming, crying, pleading... Sometimes, he's doing all three--and to himself. It's a complex role, and Vijay is great in it.

And yet, when the film ended, I was left with questions. Given the courage shown in doing away with a conventional opening number, why the need to sneak in "Naan Ready-a Varava" later on, as a regular dance number and in a flashback, no less? If this is 100% a Lokesh film, is he perhaps a prisoner of the standards his own previous excellence has set? The song, "Naan Ready-a", is great; the choreography is fun too, with the frames packed with hundreds of bouncing people. And yet, I wondered if the time could not have been better spent. How about utilising it to help us understand a woman character, who pops out of nowhere, better? Or wait, how about shading the characters of Antony Das and Harold Das (Arjun) better? Who are these two really, apart from their relationship to Leo? I mean, who are they really and why are they the way they are? The writing of these two antagonists is among the biggest issues in Leo. And of course, it would have helped to write the women better too. It doesn’t feel like Trisha or her character, Sathya, bring a whole lot to the film—and as for the other surprise inclusion, there’s even less impact.

The best parts of Leo are when it feels like the film is having a lot of fun—like Parthiban, after losing control of himself each time, sitting in the police station to hilarious effect, while the rest of the world, including the cop Joshy (a likeable GVM), mops up after him. Or when Parthiban casually suggests the name Subramani (Moondram Pirai, anyone?) to a hyena. And oh, a pat on the back for everyone involved in putting the hyena scenes together—it’s lifelike and did not once threaten my suspension of disbelief. Dwelling on the focus on this creature, it seemed to me like the hyena were something of a spirit animal for Parthiban. He too is removed from his pack, his instincts all wrong in a different setting. He too is in danger and is frightened (Anirudh writes a cool song about this); he too is snarling and can cause great damage to aggressors. That’s perhaps why he connects with all those predatory animals in the film. And much like those creatures, much like the hyena, it seems like Parthiban’s temper is kept in check by those around him showing him love. Is it not almost poetic then that when Parthiban isn't around to save his family, who else should be there but the hyena?

But these layers aside, I do think the film should have done better in exploring the dichotomy of this mass-murdering maniac whose heart beats so dearly for animals. It’s an interesting character trait, but it leaves so many questions, especially concerning his relationship with Antony Das. Also, there’s something about the loss of a friend, something about the loss of another close one—and all of this is just not sufficiently explored. Sufficiency, in these matters, isn’t necessarily a matter of allocating more time; it’s about how the given time gets utilised. I was also not quite sure about Leo’s (the character) position on drugs. If it changed, when did it? How strongly does he feel about it, as opposed to, say, a Vikram? In its eagerness to create stunt sequences, one or two of which are oddly generic for a Lokesh Kanagaraj film, Leo leaves some of these important spaces unattended.

When the action works though, it’s great. The use of everyday objects is enjoyable; there is an urgency to the action that’s rare in our cinema, a reality to it that can leave the weak-hearted shaken. You remember that horrific moment in American History X when the protagonist locks an opponent’s jaw on the pavement and kicks his head in? I caught more than one moment like that in this film. Even when the fighting runs the risk of feeling a tad generic, Lokesh ensures that the camera, like the eagle, is busy flying around, giving us unusual perspectives of the action. You see this in a car chase too, with the lights in the mist bringing a ghostly quality to the action. In between, I didn’t much care for all the cigarette stylizing though. It's fine to capture it as a habit of a character, but lately, it feels like we have returned to fetishising it with stars. But yes, there are some cool touches, as you’d expect in a film like this. Like a crowd-favourite character getting to handle a gun, like he probably should have in an earlier film. Like Mansoor Ali Khan, playing a kaithi and eating biriyani (as he was meant to earlier). And yet, are both characters offering any unforgettable moments?

The joys get sparse as Leo goes on. Lokesh has spoken about how this is 100% his film, but during those flashback portions and the eventual culmination of it all, for vast portions in the second half, it doesn’t quite feel like it. That’s perhaps because Lokesh, with previous films, has trained us to expect better. He has trained us to expect charismatic antagonists. He has trained us to expect proper emotional stakes. He has trained us to expect a certain democracy when it comes to the writing of characters beyond the protagonist. And if his film belongs to the LCU, he has trained us to expect tasteful connections and rousing reveals. And since “naan poi solladhavan”, I must declare that by Lokesh’s own lofty standards, Leo feels like a step down—but this doesn’t mean it is devoid of pleasures.

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