Thunivu (2023)

One of the biggest adjustments in my life recently has been getting used to getting around without a car.  It’s been fine.  Between bikes, buses, streetcars, and long walks, I’ve been able to access pretty much everything I want or need within New Orleans city limits . . . with one major exception.  The weekly screenings of Indian action movies I used to catch at AMC Elmwood are now prohibitively far away, so I’m a lot less likely to make that expensive trek out to the suburban multiplex unless it’s for a major hit, like the recent high-octane spy thriller Pathaan.  Despite the ongoing pop culture phenomenon of RRR, the two lone theaters in Orleans Parish (The Broad & The Prytania) have yet to take a chance on programming the Indian action blockbusters I love & miss. Even the recent EncoRRRe “fan favorite” screenings of that breakout hit were all held at AMC Elmwood, the exact venue where I first saw it a full year ago.  And so, I’m now relying on at-home streaming services to provide access to Indian action content, which isn’t quite the same as being obliterated by their explosive sound & spectacle on the big screen, but at least they’re sometimes quick to the punch.  The Tamil-language bank heist thriller Thunivu popped up on Netflix only one month after it screened at AMC Elmwood this January, so if I had any lingering FOMO from the missed opportunity it didn’t last very long.  And hey, I’m pretty used to watching these obnoxiously loud action flicks in empty theaters anyway, so there really wasn’t all that much difference in watching it on my couch.

In Thunivu, middle-aged action star Ajith Kumar plays a mysterious bank robber who pulls off a heist of a smaller, scrappier heist that’s already in motion.  Through a never-ending supply of preposterous flashbacks & plot twists it turns out that that heist was also sub-heist under a much grander, more complex theft being pulled off by the real criminals of the modern world: investment bankers.  So, Kumar’s anonymous Dark Devil persona is hijacking two different groups of thieves—gangster & corporate—by lumping them in with the usual crowd of everyday hostages typical to a bank-heist plot.  It takes a long time for him to assert dominance over this convoluted triple-heist, quieting the room with a relentless storm of machine gun bullets until no one dares stand against him.  He feels laidback & in control the entire time, though, cracking wise and impersonating Michael Jackson dance moves to win over the common people watching news coverage at home.  And then, when he has the world’s attention, he narrates a lengthy flashback that explains in great detail how the bank itself is the biggest thief of all, scamming working-class customers out of their hard-earned money without any legal consequence.  Thunivu starts as a standard bank heist thriller (complete with a “Here’s the plan” montage for the scrappier bank robbery that never comes to fruition), but eventually evolves into the DTV action equivalent of The Big Short.  It’s trashy, brutal, earnest excess featuring an action hero lead with self-declared “charismatic presence” and a healthy disgust for banking as an industry.

If that heist-within-a-heist-within-a-heist plot description was kind of a mess, it’s because the movie is too.  It’s at least a stylish, entertaining mess, though – one that remains excitingly volatile even when it defaults to infotainment monologues about the evils of modern banking.  There are some wonderfully explosive action scenes, some childish cornball humor, and a jolty, hyperactive editing style that plays like the modern CG equivalent of an overcranked nickelodeon projector.  If Thunivu starred Liam Neeson and was directed by Neveldine & Taylor it would be celebrated as a cult classic for decades to come by action movie nerds everywhere.  Instead, it’s mainly a victory lap celebration for Ajith Kumar’s adoring fans in India, now over 60 titles deep into his career as an action star & a “charismatic presence”.  As with all the leads of the Kollywood & Tollywood actioners I’ve been seeking out in recent years, Kumar’s Dark Devil persona is celebrated in Thunivu as the coolest dude to ever walk the earth.  He’s constantly adorned with sunglasses, a wind machine, and a hip-hop theme song declaring him “the gangsta”, living the full music video fantasy as a rock star bankrobber while everyone on the other side of his machine gun is blown to bits.  The movie goes out of its way to modernize this populist action hero archetype with CG graphics of cybertheft & corporate thuggery and with the Dark Devil taking on a masked Anonymous avatar when dealing with the press, but it’s all pretty basic, classic action hero machismo. He’s a hero of the people, fighting back against the villainous slimeballs in suits who hold us down.

I don’t want to complain too much here about the programming at The Broad & The Prytania, which between them offer just about every new release I’d want to see on the big screen.  Just about.  Even when explosively over-the-top Indian action blockbusters like Thunivu play out at the suburban multiplex (which has 20 screens under one roof to play around with), they often play to near-empty rooms.  I guess what I’m most lamenting is that the recent successes of films like RRR & Pathaan have yet to drum up much of an appetite for other Bollywood, Kollywood, and Tollywood action epics, despite their routine delivery of the most exciting populist entertainment on the market, Hollywood be damned.  These crowdpleasing genre pictures are still treated like a niche interest in America, an esoteric cultural novelty that you can only access via a 90-minute bus ride or, if you’re patient enough, a subscription to Netflix. 

-Brandon Ledet