3.5 Stars (out of 4)
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With Commando — A One Man Army, Producer Vipul Shah and director Dilip Ghosh set out to make a realistic action film in the vein of Jackie Chan films, heavily reliant on martial arts and without lots of special effects, cable harnesses, or technological assistance. They achieved their goal in spades. Commando is an exciting action film with a strong Indian identity.
Commando‘s lead character, Karan (Vidyut Jamwal), is an elite Indian soldier captured when his helicopter crashes in China. Federal politicians force Karan’s superior officer, Colonel Sinha (Darshan Jariwala), to disavow all knowledge of Karan to avoid a war with the Chinese, who assume Karan is a spy. Karan escapes after a year of torture.
Following this introduction, the action shifts abruptly to a small north Indian town not far from the Chinese border. The town is besieged by a drug lord named AK (Jaideep Ahlawat) whose scariness is enhanced by eyeballs that appear to be entirely white, devoid of irises or pupils. AK wants to marry Simrit (Pooja Chopra) — the daughter of a local leader — to ease his foray into politics, but Simrit runs away, rather than marry such a monster.
Her escape attempt is nearly foiled, until she literally runs into Karan at the bus station. Karan beats up a dozen bad guys in spectacular fashion, and the two flee AK together.
Despite the sudden shift from a Chinese torture chamber to an Indian small town, the narrative is really straightforward: two young, good-looking people fall in love while running for their lives. The action is the main attraction, but in the “Making of” extra on the DVD, Shah and Ghosh specify that this is first and foremost a love story.
That’s part of the reason why Commando is so successful: it’s very, very Indian. This is not The Raid: Redemption, another realistic action movie (which I loved) whose main character is a somber, seemingly invincible he-man. Commando is a fairly traditional, Bollywood-style romance, complete with an item number and a love song set on a beach. Only this romance results in lots and lots of dead people.
Commando is brutal but not overly gory, involving lots of blood but no guts. The South African action team that choreographed the fight sequences did a wonderful job showcasing Jamwal’s athleticism, honed from years of training in the south Indian martial art kalaripayattu.
Jamwal is spectacular in Commando. He plays his character as gruff, but not humorless. His grace and ferocity in fight sequences is thrilling to watch. I’m hopeful that Jamwal’s brand of full-throttle fighting will shift the standards for future Bollywood action fare away from the ubiquitous slap-fests reliant upon heroes in harnesses dodging bullets in Matrix-style slow motion.
Chopra does a nice job making Simrit more than just a damsel in distress. Simrit is brave and ready to fight, even if she does scream when she sees a snake, early on. She’s able to keep up with Karan as they run through the forest, having wisely packed a pair of sensible shoes in her getaway bag.
Ahlawat’s AK is one of my favorite Hindi-film villains in a long time. AK is truly scary, and not just because of his eyes. Not content to play the aloof don and let his underlings do his dirty work for him, he directly kills a lot of people himself, even those who’ve helped in his pursuit of Karan and Simrit. The fact that he follows up a bunch of murders with a dance number featuring Natalia Kaur just makes AK all the more sinister.
In addition to the great stunts and performances, Commando is a beautiful movie to look at. Sejal Shah’s cinematography captures the wonder of the forests around Manali, where the bulk of the chase footage was shot. The film’s score is varied, with everything from surf rock to metal to mariachi music.
I hope Commando inspires Indian filmmakers to take more risks with the type of action films they make. Jamwal’s impressive performance should make him a hot commodity in Bollywood. This is one of my favorite Hindi films of the year.