Karnan (2021)

On a recent lagniappe episode of the podcast, we returned to one of our collective favorite films of 2020: Bacurau, the ultimate “Fuck Around and Find Out” sci-fi parable.  I was happy to revisit the film to discuss it in greater detail, since it’s such a deceptively complex tale of political resistance and communal solidarity.  The patiently delayed payoffs to its “Most Dangerous Game” genre subversions, the total disinterest in raising one sole hero over the heroism of the community as a unit, and the truly liberated sexual & gender dynamics among the citizenry all feel purposeful and well considered in a way that only gets more impressive on rewatch and in post-credits discussion among friends.  Perversely, it’s the total absence of exactly those thoughtful, nuanced elements that makes Bacurau‘s mainstream Kollywood equivalent Karnan such a hoot.  Karnan‘s own tale of communal uprising against would-be outside oppressors starts with flashy music video pizazz, elevates a singular folk hero above the power of communal bravery, and is morally conservative to the point of censoring tobacco consumption and stick-figure graffiti of boobies in real time.  Karnan is the absurdly reductive, shamelessly melodramatic version of Bacurau, telling a very similar story without any of the nuance or restraint that made Bacurau so remarkable in the first place.  It’s also a delight.

While the fictional town of Bacurau stages its violent political rebellion in a near-future science fiction Brazil, the fictional town of Podiyankulam in Karnan stages its own in 1990s Southern India, loosely referring to actual historical uprisings of the era.  The titular Karnan is an explosively angry young man who feels hobbled by his remote, impoverished village’s status at the bottom of the regional food chain.  His journey is in learning to channel that anger into something useful, starting the film as an aimless hothead and ending it as a radical political advocate for the wellbeing of Podiyankulam at large.  First, he protests to establish a bus stop connecting Podiyankulam to the rest of the world (mostly so local women can travel to college).  When that demand is met with incredulous anger from the wealthier communities nearby—particularly their bully-staffed police departments—he then organizes his community in a literal battle against crooked cops.  And even though this is set in the 1990s, he rides into that battle on horseback wielding “the village sword” like a maniac, hunting down the vilest pig among his enemies for and old-fashioned smiting.  There’s also a spiritual component to the rebellion at hand, represented by dreamworld visits from the dead who whisper words of encouragement behind their painted plaster masks.  And because this is an Indian blockbuster, there’s also plenty of singing, dancing, and romancing to help fill out the three-hour runtime between all the ultraviolent bloodshed.

Of the two over-the-top Tamil-language action flicks I’ve seen so far this year, I slightly prefer the Dangerous Minds throwback Master, but Karnan is still 158 solidly entertaining minutes of cinematic excess.  Seeking out Kollywood & Tollywood action blockbusters over the past few years is the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing how video store nerds must’ve felt discovering Hong Kong martial arts flicks in the 1980s.  It’s outright baffling that these movies aren’t earning a more vocal, enthusiastic audience in the West, considering that they regularly exceed the supposed benchmark for modern delirious action in the Fast & Furious franchise.  Karnan may not launch any “streetracing” cars into outer space, but it’s the only movie I can remember where a populist folk hero earns his legacy by slicing down a cop with “the village sword”.  That’s not to say that its appeal is tied to its novelty as exported Indian pop culture.  It’s just genuinely badass to see someone kill cops with a giant sword, and it happens no other film industry is making mainstream action movies with that kind of climactic payoff right now.  The great thing about Kollywood action films is that their sprawling runtimes immerse you in their over-the-top, frenzied tones to the point where you stop gawking at the films’ audacity and simply become invested in their stories.  I really needed to see that sword slice into some cop flesh, and Karnan delivered.

The meditative, politically poignant vision of near-future communal rebellion in Bacurau is exquisitely realized.  By contrast, the brash, chaotic action movie version of that story template in Karnan is pure mayhem.  Watching both films in close proximity is like hearing a Philosophy lecture re-interpreted as a belligerent scream.  I found both experiences to be worthwhile, especially in tandem.

-Brandon Ledet

Master (2021)

It has officially been a full calendar year since I saw Blumhouse’s The Invisible Man at AMC Westbank, which was the last time I watched any movie in a proper indoor theater. There hasn’t exactly been a cinematic drought in the year since the pandemic started, since plenty of delayed-distribution festival releases (and filmed-in-lockdown experiments like Host) have rushed in to fill the void left by the major players who’re still waiting out this never-ending shitstorm. As much as I love a good low-budget arthouse provocation, I’ve come to miss seeing large-scale blockbusters at the local megaplex over the past year, especially as another dreary summer season approaches. Of the big-budget action spectacles that have been missing from my movie diet, I most miss the sprawling Indian blockbusters that play at AMC Elmwood, often to sparse, weirdly unenthused audiences. Catching over-the-top action movies like 2.0, War, and Saaho on the big screen has made for some of my most satisfying cinematic experiences of the past few years, as they’re often far more daring & entertaining than their timid American equivalents – including supposedly eccentric franchises like Fast & Furious and Mission: Impossible. It was a wonderful gift, then, that the recent Tamil-language blockbuster Master appeared on Amazon Prime mere weeks after its theatrical run. I’m still nowhere near comfortable with returning to the megaplex even as our local vaccine rollout escalates, so I very much appreciated getting a small taste of the over-the-top action spectacles I’ve been missing over the past year.

Master is a Kollywood action blockbuster throwback to 90s American thrillers like Dangerous Minds where real Tough Cookie teachers fight to save impoverished, overlooked students from lives of petty street crime. In this variation, an alcoholic college professor quickly sobers up when he is assigned to teach troubled youth at a juvenile correctional facility, only to discover that the kids are being preyed upon by a local gangster (and corrupt union organizer) who frames them for crimes committed by his adult underlings. Even as a sloppy drunk in the first act, the Badass Teacher is treated with the wide-eyed hero worship afforded action stars like Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, and Stallone in their 1990s heyday. He wears his sunglasses inside, wields his pocket flask as a weapon, has several badass theme songs that refer to him as “Master the Blaster” (including a reggae diddy that eventually becomes his ringtone), and periodically winks at the camera to remind you to have fun. Meanwhile, his union-gangster nemesis is an ice-cold sociopath who’s so freakishly strong he can murder his victims with a single punch (including, it should be said, small children on several occasions). Their head-to-head battlegrounds are stereotypical action locales like warehouses, construction sites, and meat lockers, but most of the drama unfolds in classrooms where they compete for control of the neighborhood children’s minds & freedom. Really, the only thing that’s missing is the titular Master going full Michelle Pfeiffer by turning his chair backwards to appear tough & cool to the youths, accompanied—of course—by the Tamil equivalent of Coolio. There are plenty of Gully Boy-style rap songs on the soundtrack, though, so it’s not exactly an opportunity missed.

I genuinely believe India’s various, disparate movie industries are currently making the best big-budget action flicks in the world, the same way that Hong Kong martial arts thrillers hit an unmatched creative high in the 1980s. Admittedly, Master is not my favorite example of this trend. I wish its action set pieces & lengthy dance breaks had escalated more drastically post-intermission to push its premise into full-blown delirium, but for the most part it’s still three hours well spent. The combat is brutal, the melodrama is wonderfully saccharine, and there’s a song with the lyrics “Problems will come & go/Chill a bit, bro” that legit unclenched my jaw. I also can’t discount the instant rush of pleasure I got just by having access to this kind of cinema again, something I usually only encounter at the megaplex. As soon as the endless production cards & multiple-language health warnings (about the dangers of drinking in this case, of course) kicked off the minutes-long opening credits I knew I was about to be spoiled with some Grade A action entertainment. I hope that when my community is sufficiently vaccinated and I feel comfortable with the moviegoing ritual again, these films will still be on the menu at 20-screen monstrosities like AMC Elmwood. I miss them very much.

-Brandon Ledet

2.0 (2018)

There’s a cinematic downtime in the post-Thanksgiving afterglow, when Major Oscar contenders have not yet arrived in smaller markets and Falls’ big-budget blockbusters have long outworn their welcome, leaving little to be excited about on local big screens. This entertainment void can sometimes lead to risky programming choices, like walking into an Indian sci-fi action epic with no preparation or context for what you’re watching. I saw the Tamil-language “Kollywood” production 2.0 in 3D as a total blind-purchase. I didn’t even know it was a sequel to the 2010 film Endhiran until I recognized its superhero character Chitti from “viral content’ memes of its predecessor’s more ludicrous scenes. The heroic android Chitti does not arrive until at least an hour into the film. The full nature & history of the supervillain he’s tasked to disarm is withheld for even longer. As such, I had absolutely no idea what direction 2.0’s sprawling 3-hour narrative was going to swerve at any point, making for one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences I’ve had all year. I don’t know how well that experience will translate to people who have already seen Endhiran or have a better familiarity with the peculiar structure & tones of a typical Kollywood sci-fi action comedy. Even reading this review before seeing 2.0 compromises your chance to replicate the experience. All I can report is that I was shocked & delighted throughout this go-for-broke live action cartoon.

I was already pleased with my blind purchase of a 2.0 ticket as soon as its opening credits, which are constructed like the kind of 3D virtual reality “rollercoaster” that people used to go gaga for at Disney World in the early aughts. That cheap-thrills amusement park ride through the “futuristic” opening credits is then disrupted by an incredibly bleak simulation of an entirely different VR experience: a first-person POV suicide. A gloomy old man hangs himself by a noose from a cellphone tower, birds swarming around his swinging body in a pitch-black tonal shift. His damned spirit then somehow uses the amplification of the cellphone tower to confiscate & spiritually possess all the world’s smartphones as revenge for the planet’s modern ills that drove him to suicide. 2.0 quickly reveals itself to be a gleefully over-the-top participant in my pet favorite genre territory: the technophobic cyberthriller about the Evils of the Internet. Our freshly-minted Luddite ghost is righteously angry about the ways cellphone towers have disrupted the lives & flight patterns of birds, so he hacks/haunts every phone he can gather to attack the very men who have greedily traded in bird lives for profit. Smartphones gather in slow-creeping blankets that cover entire rooms & roads, surrounding their bird-killing capitalist targets and eventually exploding them from the inside in moments of Cronenbergian body horror. Only one force is considered effective enough to subdue this supernatural birds’ rights activist: everyone’s favorite superhero android Chitti, whom I’ve honestly ever heard of despite his worldwide heroic acclaim.

Chitti’s universally lovable superheroics play like a silly joke – and it’s hilarious. The same slightly pudgy, middle aged actor who plays the scientist who created Chitti, Rajinikanth, also doubles as the superhero robot – distinguished as a piece of future-tech by his shiny silver jacket & knockoff Oakley sunglasses. He looks like someone’s milquetoast uncle snuck into one of those creepy Duracell commercials from the 90s, like the mild-mannered sitcom equivalent of Max Headroom. He travels by metal-gear heelies, leaving a comically unimpressive trail of sparks behind him as he zips around the city. He’s also supported by updated Chitti models that allow Rajinikanth­­ to stretch his acting chops in high-concept questions like “What if Chitti was a macho asshole?” or “What if Chitti were tiny & cute?” The deliriously over-the-top fun of Chitti’s mugging-at-the-camera superheroics is enough of a sugary blast to make you forget that 2.0 was once a grim, violent cyber-horror about vengefully possessed smartphones. The way the two halves of that divide clash in a giant go-for-broke superhero climax is far sillier, wilder, and more memorable than anything you’ll find in the MCU. The more I watch big-budget Asian cinema the more I understand that it’s common for a single movie to touch on as many genres it can instead of sticking to just one. 2.0 lives up to that ethos, melding technophobic sci-fi, Environmentalist political advocacy, ghost-possession horror, android-on-android romance, slapstick farce, superhero action spectacle, and philosophical debate about the power of positivity into one lumbering, silly-ass beast. It almost doesn’t matter if you aren’t already familiar with Chitti or the usual modes of Kollywood filmmaking; the movie will go out of its way to entertain you in any way it can, even if it means concluding on a Dirty Computer-esque sci-fi music video that blows through the entire budget of an indie feature in just a few minutes.

I look forward to reviewing Chitti’s previous adventures in Endrihan and exploring similarly over-the-top Kollywood action spectacles, but I’m also glad I was able to stumble into 2.0 without any contextual preparation. That’s a rare treat for a modern moviegoer. It’s so rare, in fact, that I found myself tickled by stray novelties that might have otherwise bothered me if they were something I had come to expect as cinematic norms: in-your-face 3D ad placements, Indian nu-metal, slow-motion reaction shots that hold on an extra’s face for at least a beat too long. I loved it all, both for the surprise of its novelty and for its audacity to go big & so silly. Chitti & company are 100% in on the joke, but 2.0 still commits to its ludicrous premise with full sincerity. I’d be lucky to experience that at the cinema every year.

-Brandon Ledet