One of my favorite excursions to the theater in the last couple years was a blind-watch of the Indian sci-fi action spectacle 2.0, which I didn’t even realize was a sequel to a much bigger hit film until almost a half-hour into its runtime. The three hour onslaught of shapeshifting machines, music video interludes, and CGI-aided slapstick farce that followed was the exact kind of brain-melting spectacle I always hope for in over-the-top action blockbusters, but rarely see satisfied. The closest parallel in American cinema to the gleefully excessive cartoon lunacy of 2.0 (and its equally ludicrous predecessor Enthiran) is the ongoing Fast & Furious series, which long ago started as a street-racing flavored Point Break rip-off but at this point is a full-on Looney Tunes-scale middle finger to logic, good taste, and physics – bless its big stupid heart. That’s why it makes a lot of sense to me that the next Indian action blockbuster I’d catch in theaters would be a clear . . . homage to the Fast & Furious series’ global appeal as an obnoxious American export. The first hour of Saaho is a relatively well-behaved Telugu-language bastardization of the Fast & Furious formula, adapting the American series’ hyperactive game of cops & robbers to a different cultural backdrop while maintaining the exact look & tone of its earliest, least remarkable entries. Luckily, there are two more hours of runtime after that initial third, and that’s where that old 2.0 feeling flooded back into my theater and the movie rapidly transformed into its own beautifully ludicrous novelty – miles past its Fast & Furious starting line.
Almost as if purposefully restraining itself to American action cinema’s more conservative sensibilities for its first hour, Saaho waits until a third of the way into its colossal runtime to reveal its opening credits title card – “SAAHO” in massive block letters. That delayed announcement is then followed up with the warning “It’s showtime!,” as if the entire preceding hour were just a preamble warmup to the feature attraction. It’s not like the film shifts gears from there into being something other than a heightened Fast & Furious riff into something entirely novel, either. Instead, it tosses that series into a blender with Mission: Impossible, The Matrix, John Wick, Iron Man, Mad Max: Fury Road, and practically every other action blockbuster in recent memory you can name, all with a go-big-forget-going-home James Cameron maximalism fueling its engine. It’s fairly blatant about this post-modern collect-them-all amalgamation of American pop culture touchstones too. There’s a fictional courier company in the film named Fast & Furious Delivery Service. A key shootout tears up a living room where T2: Judgement Day is playing on a background TV. When a suspect in a heist is pressured to spill the beans on his fellow thieves, he retorts “Jon Snow, I know nothing.” Still, the film transcends merely feeling like a collection of familiar pop culture references to become its own beautifully absurd post-modern object – partly through unifying its blatant influences with a consistent hip hop music video aesthetic, partly by translating them through the highly specific cultural filter of an Indian blockbuster template, and partly by signaling its second-hour gear shift with a rules-changing character reveal that I’ve never seen in the action genre before, American or otherwise.
I wouldn’t dare spoil the genre-subverting Twist that prompts the “It’s showtime!” announcement at the top of the second hour, at least not in a proper review. It’s not like plot or characterization are the main draw for over-the-top action blockbusters on this scale anyway. Saaho doesn’t have much on its mind narrative-wise other than pulling the rug from under its audience in a constant parade of double/triple/quadruple crossings between its warring factions of corrupt cops & ambitious thieves. The thieves need a “black box” MacGuffin key to unlock a vault full of gold (that has a vague connection to a nationally beneficial Hydro Electric Power Plant project they’re embezzling from). The cops monitoring their activities need to catch them in the act of the robbery to prove that a crime is even taking place, since most of their illegal activities appear to be above board as a privately-owned corporation that does good deeds for the national public. Both sides of the cops & robbers divide have undercover operatives sabotaging the other’s missions and much of the fun of the film’s plot is trying to keep track of who’s really working for whom among the many, many characters onscreen. If all these good vs. evil espionage and secret identities shenanigans add up to any central theme, it’s that thieves are always a few steps ahead of the police, which affords them an anti-hero underdog status in the film’s hierarchy (in true Fast & Furious tradition). I’m not sure that it does add up to much thematically, though, since narrative was always going to take a back seat to the film’s value as a vehicle for over-the-top action spectacle.
Ludicrous, delirious, cartoon-level action is never in short supply here, not even in the film’s relatively well-behaved first hour. Body-mounted cameras spice up multi-level fistfights where muscle heads are beaten to a pulp with their own gym weights. Characters fly across the screen wuxia-style to emphasize the impact of a thunderous punch or kick. Slow-motion frame rates dwell on explosions & car wrecks so you can fully soak in their violent splendor. Because of the expectations of the Indian audience, these action cinema payoffs are often disrupted by romantic excursions & music video dance breaks for minutes on end. It’s not as if American action movies are devoid of extraneous romantic subplots or commercially-minded needle drops. It’s just that dispatches from Indian production hubs like Bollywood & Tollywood afford those touches extended, isolated screentime to fully play out. This can lead to some sublimely surreal cinematic moments, like when the film’s romantic leads slow-dance in a choreographed gunfight & flirt over an intense game of foosball, or when the film exaggerates action blockbusters’ propensity for product placement into a feature-length music video advertisement for Red Bull energy drinks. There is nothing subtle or nuanced about Saaho. Its boardroom of criminal thieves all look like Dick Tracey villains. Its bombshell lead’s hair is always glamorously blowing in the breeze, even when she’s indoors. It name-checks Fast & Furious in the first ten minutes to signal exactly what it’s up to. Once it’s officially “showtime,” though, and the film fully exploits its opportunities for action-packed, copyright-infringing chaos, their total disregard for subtlety becomes its greatest virtue. If you’re going to be a Big Dumb Loud action flick, you might as well be the biggest, dumbest, and loudest. I can’t help but respect these Indian action spectacles’ full-on commitment to their own emptyheaded extremity, since they make their American counterparts (and apparent sources of inspiration) seem relatively tame by comparison.