2.5 Stars (out of 4)
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Phantom is a revenge fantasy inspired by the 26/11 terrorist attacks on Mumbai. As political wish-fulfillment, the movie is entertaining enough, but it isn’t truly satisfying.
Phantom opens with a short primer on the attacks that includes harrowing actual news footage. Then the film’s hero, “Jude” (Saif Ali Khan), makes his entrance in unheroic fashion. He engages in a road rage car chase through Chicago that ends in him punching a man who falls to his death in the Chicago River.
“Jude” is an alias of Daniyal Khan, a dishonorably discharged Indian Army officer on a secret mission to assassinate the four masterminds of the 26/11 attacks. His mission first takes him to London, where he meets his contact, Nawaz (Katrina Kaif).
Nawaz has a complicated job description. She works for the not-so-subtly-named US military contractor Dark Water, coordinating security for refugee camps run by Medicine International, who she may also work for.
Daniyal kills the man Nawaz is hired to identify — a high-ranking terrorist trainer — and she is furious for being dragged into his deadly scheme. Still, when she gets a coded phone call from Daniyal, she agrees to help him in his next mission: exterminate David Coleman Headley in jail in Chicago.
While Daniyal receives off-the-record assistance from India’s intelligence agency, their counterparts in Pakistan conclude that the deaths of such prominent terrorists are connected. The Pakistani agents try to identify the man responsible, but Daniyal is always one step ahead of them.
Phantom has an apt tagline: “A story you wish were true.” The notion of one man, freed from political constraints, taking out not one, but four of the most wanted terrorists in the world is immensely appealing. Getting to join him for the ride — with all its accompanying car chases, fist fights, and espionage — makes it even better.
Still, there’s a nagging feeling throughout the film: it couldn’t happen like this. It took ten years and a whole team of US special forces soldiers to kill Osama Bin Laden. One guy with no advanced military training taking out four terrorists in the span of a few months?
It all comes too easy for Daniyal. His most perilous moments consist of him bobbling something in his hand and being delayed by a stalled auto-rickshaw. There’s no one on the ground tracking him; the Pakistani agents gather their information on him remotely. As a result, the movie lacks tension.
Director Kabir Khan wisely resists forcing a love story into the narrative. Daniyal has bigger fish to fry, and Nawaz is rightfully wary of him. Focusing on the two leads as professionals, not lovers, also frees Khan and Kaif to give grounded performances.
One other performance needs special acknowledgement. Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who plays the Indian intelligence officer who masterminds the mission, deserves some kind of lifetime achievement award for persevering in the face of nonsense. This time, he’s forced to give a corny speech, urging Indian naval officers to pluck up their courage and buck orders for the sake of this one man — this one man! — who was willing to risk his life for India.
Ayyub’s speech is part of a third act that is cheesier than the rest of the film. Fortunately, Director Khan ends Phantom on a contemplative note that befits the seriousness of the events that inspired it. We can wish for an easy path to justice, but we can never take it lightly.