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Movie Review: Ra.One (2011)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Buy the DVD at Amazon
Buy the soundtrack at Amazon

After heavily promoting the most expensive movie in Indian cinematic history, the makers of Ra.One created high expectations for their film. Even if it’s not the instant classic it aspired to be, Ra.One is exactly what it should be: a fun action flick with some great special effects.

The film stars Shahrukh Khan as a nerdy programmer named Shekhar. He lives in London with his wife, Sonia (Kareena Kapoor), and their son, Prateek (Armaan Verma), a preteen fascinated by the dark side. In order to improve his image in his son’s eyes, goody-two-shoes Shekhar creates a video game in which the villain is all but indestructible.

The virtual villain, Ra.One — whose name is a play on Raavan, the demon in the Ramayana — is programmed with an artificial intelligence that takes umbrage at being beaten by young Prateek, who plays under the gamer handle “Lucifer.” Ra.One accesses a prototype technology created by Shekhar’s company that imbues holograms with physical substance, allowing Ra.One to materialize in the real world and hunt Lucifer.

When Prateek figures out what has happened, he realizes his only hope is to make the game’s hero, G.One (a play on the Hindi word for “life”), corporeal as well. G.One looks exactly like Shekhar, only buffer and cooler. Will G.One be able to protect Prateek from the world’s ultimate villain?

$40 million — a monstrous budget for a Hindi movie — pales next to the hundreds of millions spent on Hollywood action films. But director Anubhav Sinha uses his resources wisely and gets great results. A chase through the streets of London is heart-stopping, as is a thrilling showdown between Ra.One and G.One in a junkyard.

It’s only when Sinha relies too much on computer-generated images do the limits of the budget show. G.One fights a gang of thugs with a CGI soccer ball that looks phony and insubstantial.

3-D is deployed in a satisfying way throughout, adding depth to scenes rather than projecting images out into the audience. It enhances the movie’s pleasing aesthetic. An early dream sequence and the final battle are stunning, with a high-contrast style reminiscent of director Tarsem Singh.

The film’s dance numbers are well-executed and full of energy. Khan and Kapoor genuinely look like they enjoy dancing together; they have a nice rapport off the dance floor as well. Shahana Goswami and Tom Wu round out the likeable cast of heroes as Shekhar’s coworkers, Jenny and Akashi.

At times, the movie’s ultimate message — that one should always, as my mom says, “do good and avoid evil” — gets muddled. Prateek isn’t just a moody preteen; he’s also somewhat of a bully, making jokes at the expense of an overweight classmate. I’m not sure he’d be so quick join the good guys if his life weren’t in danger, and Verma’s bland performance didn’t convince me otherwise.

Prateek’s not the only one with a nasty streak. Jokes that depict gays as uncontrollable sex addicts and make fun of Akashi for being Chinese (everyone calls him “Jackie Chan”) are, if not mean-spirited, then ill-considered.

Based on the number of prints distributed internationally and the inclusion of American rapper Akon on the soundtrack, the makers of Ra.One clearly hoped to expand the reach of the film beyond India. By that metric, were they successfully in creating a globally appealing action film?

Almost. Ra.One is undoubtedly entertaining, visually appealing and easy to understand for viewers who must rely on subtitles. But, at 155 minutes,┬áit’s just too long. It’s hard to sustain an appropriate level of tension for that much time, and Ra.One falters during a dull 25-minute-long section in the middle in which nothing much happens besides the newly corporeal G.One clumsily navigating his surroundings.

Eliminate that 25-minute interlude and some of the insider Indian movie references, and Ra.One becomes a taut, 2-hour thriller with universal appeal. In that format, there’s no reason why it — or future Indian event films — can’t compete with East Asian martial arts flicks for fans of action films made outside of Hollywood.