Pathaan (2023)

Maybe it’s a hacky move to constantly compare Indian action blockbusters to their Hollywood equivalents, but the latest wide-release Bollywood export Pathaan doesn’t leave me much room to avoid repeating the offense.  Between its global spyware espionage, military-grade streetracing warfare, and 92-floor supertower heist sequence, it’s impossible to not compare Pathaan to the soon-to-conclude Fast & Furious saga – its most obvious genre template.  At least it compares favorably.  I want to call Pathaan the best Fast & Furious movie since Furious 7 in 2015, but that would be inaccurate.  It’s only the best Fast & Furious movie since the Tollywood actioner Saaho in 2019, further proof that India’s various film industries are outshining Hollywood action spectacle in a way that hasn’t been seen since Hong Kong’s martial arts boom in the 80s & 90s.  It’s no surprise that the basic thrills of the Fast & Furious saga would be echoed & warped in its Indian equivalents, since the streetracing-turned-espionage action brand has been one of Hollywood’s more successful global exports for the past two decades.  Only, as the Fast & Furious saga has become self-aware of its situational humor & blatant disregard for real-world physics, it’s also become weirdly timid about sincerely pushing itself to an over-the-top extreme.  Movies like Pathaan & Saaho are outperforming their American inspiration point because they’re willing to sincerely indulge in the cartoon physics that CGI affords their car-racing superheroes without any ironic “Well, that just happened” meta-commentary.  They also take the thudding fight choreography of hand-to-hand combat seriously in a way American action films were starting to lose touch with (until the success of John Wick reinvigorated the practice), perfectly balancing the uncanny computer graphics and tactile physical brutality of the genre for thoroughly entertaining blockbuster spectacle – with music video romance & dance breaks.

What makes Pathaan special within these larger, global industry concerns is that it’s gunning for a second American action franchise’s genre template, beyond its debts owed to Fast & FuriousPathaan is an overt, unashamed bid to establish a new MCU-style interconnected universe that unites several pre-existing action epics under one behemoth brand.  It’s an origin story for its titular tough-as-nails superspy Pathaan (played by the immensely popular Shah Rukh Khan), but it is somehow not a standalone action thriller.  Pathaan is the fourth film in a series that previously did not exist, acting as a better-late-than-never crossover that groups together 2012’s Ek Tha Tiger, its 2017 sequel Tiger Zinda Hai, and the standalone 2019 actioner War into what will now be called YRF Spy Universe, as if that were production company Yash Raj Films’ plan all along.  Of the three previous entries in this brand-new series, I had only seen War, which made the mid-film cameo from the Salman Khan character Tiger and the obligatory post-credits “Assembling The Avengers” stinger hilariously incongruous with what was otherwise a functionally independent shoot-em-up.  So far, this legion of superspies is only connected through their occasional employment by the government intelligence agency RAW (India’s CIA equivalent), which they frequently disregard to serve global justice outside of legal means.  Both War & Pathaan detail the on-again, off-again bromance of two unstoppable supersoldiers who find themselves falling on opposite sides of the patriot-terrorist divide.  Our hero, of course, is the jingoistic patriot who will do anything to uphold the sanctity & security of Mother India – in Pathaan’s case because Mother India adopted him after a tough childhood orphaned in a poor Afghani village.  Naturally, our villain is the terrorist defector who has lost his way, using his training as an Indian supersoldier to take down his own country out of selfishness & bitterness.  You don’t need to know much more than that to enjoy these car chase blow-em-ups, which generally have a pro-wrestling sense of face-heel dynamics that are easy to jump into with or without three backlogged films of build-up.

If there’s anything especially disappointing about Pathaan and its retroactive YRF Spy Universe brethren, it’s that celebration of jingoistic patriotism.  War pulled direct inspiration from Hollywood’s vintage Jerry Bruckheimer & Michael Bay era of the 1990s, and its own nationalistic bent was indistinguishable from the rah-rah-America rabblerousing of that action blockbuster heyday; all that changed was the colors of the flag.  That ugly streak bleeds into Pathaan, despite it finding a more modern, multicultural point of inspo in the Fast & Furious saga.  Say what you will about Top Gun: Maverick‘s recent revival of Reagan-era American militarism, but it was at least polite enough to not name the home country of its enemy combatants.  Every time Pathaan squares off against Pakistani terrorists, Somali pirates, and Indian defectors he demands to speak his only acceptable language—Hindi—there’s a sharp reminder of why American action greats like Rambo & Commando have been neatly quarantined as a thing of the past.  Of course, that political queasiness does nothing to sour the in-the-moment pleasure of watching Pathaan whoop ass.  Something modern Indian blockbusters get exactly right about their vintage Hollywood equivalents is their breathless, wide-eyed celebration of their titular heroes as the coolest motherfuckers to ever walk the planet Earth.  Pathaan models aviator sunglasses in front of a high-powered music video wind machine; he pilots CGI helicopters inside enemy warehouses, flying away just ahead of a whooshing fireball; he locates & defeats international terrorists in the deepest corners of “the darknet”; he eats apple slices off the tip of his knife, accompanied by hard rock guitar & soaring synths.  The movie reminds you how mind-blowingly sexy & cool Pathaan is in every single scene, even when that means backing his latent xenophobia.  It may not be politically conscious art, but it’s at least more honest about its gleeful militarism than the more timid approach of Top Gun: Maverick.  It may hit every single pulled-out-of-retirement, assembling-the-team, tough-guy-narcissism action cliché mocked in MacGruber, but it at least appears to do so with full-hearted sincerity.  It may indulge in the worst IP-conscious industry maneuvers established by American brands like Fast & Furious and the MCU, but it at least delivers the goods when it comes to its over-the-top, jaw-dropping action set pieces.  Maybe I should stop comparing these Indian blockbusters to their American equivalents, or maybe I should just stop watching the American ones entirely, since they’re just not keeping up with the competition.

-Brandon Ledet