White Guy Watches Bollywood

A random white guy engages with contemporary Indian cinema... one movie at a time

Tamil Movie Review: Jailer succeeds on star power, despite underwhelming twists

White Guy Watches Bollywood reviews the new Tamil movie "Jailer," starring Rajinikanth and Vinayakan. Written and directed by Nelson.

Before Jailer, I had never seen a single movie starring Rajinikanth before, but one need not have even heard of any of the Tamil movie industry legend’s 150+ previous credits to know that he is a superstar. The film makes it aggressively clear just what a force this man is, nearing self-parody in the sheer number of slow-motion shots it features of the hero arriving in each scene. It also seeks to afford his thick-rimmed glasses the same iconic motif status as Indiana Jones’ bullwhip or Dirty Harry’s .44 magnum; apparently, Rajinikanth only needs corrective lenses to be able to kick ass. Through such explicit stylistic pronouncements, it feels like writer/director Nelson is introducing Rajinikanth to the entire world at the ripe age of 72, with Kollywood films like Jailer receiving broader distribution than ever before, just as much as he is engaging in fan service for the actor’s loyal following. In other words, he’s welcomely catching the rest of us up.

With an even slightly lesser star, this strategy easily could have backfired, coming across as cheesy and over-the-top. But much like Liam Neeson in the first Taken and Keanu Reeves in John Wick, Rajinikanth has the sheer level of magnetism required to sell the filmmaker’s balls-to-the-walls vision with a surprising level of internal credibility. We don’t bat an eyelash as this 72-year-old takes down hordes of men half his age – somehow, it feels positively logical. And what a sight it is to watch him do it; in much the same way that Top Gun Maverick did in the U.S. last year, Jailer reminds audiences what a true movie star looks like. Even as the film’s plot descends into complete nonsense – and boy does it ever – you’re completely transfixed by Rajinikanth as Muthuvel Pandian, the police pensioner who comes out of retirement to avenge his dead son.

The other thing that Jailer really nails is its villain. Much of this success rests in the casting of Vinayakan, who is truly terrifying as Varman, the gangster whose circuit is responsible for the death of Muthuvel’s son. It is a tremendously physical performance; Vinayakan’s eyes widen in the movie’s most brutal moments in a way that will truly haunt your dreams. In a film with quite a bit of disturbing crime imagery – men being eaten alive by hydrochloric acid, hammers going straight into skulls – the most scarring thing about it is somehow the villain’s titillated gaze at the violence. As if we needed any more reason to root for the hero than Rajinikanth’s raw charisma, our burning desire to see Varman decimated takes our investment in the protagonist’s journey to the next level.

Filmmaker Nelson also has strong support from the craftsmen behind the camera. In particular, the soundtrack and score, composed by Anirudh, are truly rousing. While the upbeat single “Kaavaalaa,” a recent chart-topper featuring vocals from Shilpa Rao, comes during one of the weakest stretches of the film (which finds Muthuvel on a film shoot alongside a leading lady played by Tamannaah Bhatia of Baahubali fame), the more intense tracks are on-point. In particular, the theme “Hukum – Thalaivar Alappara” is absolutely epic, making the climactic action of the second half especially potent. Also technically solid are Vijay Kartik Kannan’s cinematography, which feels appropriately big in scope but also captures the intimacy of several visceral moments, and the location-trotting art direction by D.R.K. Kiran.

Where Jailer excels in terms of star power and style, it falls short in terms of story and depth of character. As one would rightly expect from this genre, the second half of the movie is filled with twists – nearly all of which come across as predictable because we haven’t been given enough on the characters’ backstories and motivations to second-guess them. A big reason why so many revenge-thrillers like John Wick keep their stories simple is so that they don’t have to justify numerous plot-points with the amount of backstory required to make them truly compelling, which could in turn bog down the action. Jailer attempts to deliver electrifying twists without laying the expository groundwork required to make them impactful; it doesn’t pull such a trick off. Rajinikanth, Vinayakan, and the well-constructed action sequences keep it completely watchable throughout, but it lacks the punch of either a more meat-and-potatoes action narrative or a more intricately developed one.

Because the twists don’t really build the momentum, the pace begins to feel sluggish at certain points. As I hinted at earlier, this is particularly the case during a stretch featuring a movie within the movie. After the first shock reveal of the second half, Muthuvel and Varman strike a momentary cease-fire in a deal that requires Muthuvel to run the heist of a prized crown that Varman has long sought to smuggle. This leads Muthuvel to get involved in a film shoot starring an iconic Tollywood comedian named Blast Mohan (played by Sunil, in a role that some claim is a spoof of the actor Vijay). Needless to say, hijinks ensue. As much as I understand the impulse to inject the back half with a little lighthearted diversion, the movie completely loses momentum during this stretch, which feels like a total tangent due to the overall lack of narrative thrust going into it. As with the film’s earlier attempts at comedy involving Muthuvel’s six-year-old aspiring-YouTube-influencer grandson, the laughs are hit-or-miss and sometimes verge on cringey. But more detrimentally, they stunt the pace.

Still, the film regains its momentum heading into its final climax simply due to the raw charisma of its star and its blaring, energizing soundtrack. Even despite having some reservations with the ending, I walked out of the theater feeling like I had a truly epic experience. Some movies simply have enough goods that, on balance, they overcome their shortcomings. That said, when Nelson goes back to the well for Jailer 2 – which has already been announced – I just hope he works on actually earning the inevitable plot twists, rather than taking them for granted.

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

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