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Friday, December 23, 2011

Review: Don 2

The Movie Report

*** 1/2; Not Rated

While a sequel to his 2006 global action hit, Farhan Akhtar's Don 2 is really the first film to truly reflect what an ongoing Don film series would look like should it continue. After all, being a remake of a 1978 film, Akhtar's first Don was thus beholden to a certain arc and plot beats (which he not only revisited but reinvigorated with a slicker, sleeker style and sensibility); but more importantly--and intriguingly--the film closed on a note that would then send any proper follow-up in a wildly different direction from the original '70s incarnation. To try to both satisfy expectations built by a wildly successful film and follow a distinctive, divergent path that still feels valid and consistent within the original framework is a daunting challenge--but for a filmmaker like Akhtar, it's also very much a galvanizing dare that leads him to up the ante in just about every respect and fully claim the Don mythos as his own.

Akhtar and co-writers Ameet Mehta and Amrish Shah have wisely written in the five-year gap between releases into the movie world, making for a conveniently organic opportunity to reshuffle and reboot where necessary. The titular crime boss (Shahrukh Khan) has by now conquered the Asian drug trade, which makes him prime target for the kingpins in Europe, who suspect him to have their territory next in his sights--which, of course, he does, and figuring in his plan is an unlikely ally: archenemy Vardhaan (Boman Irani), who had been left to rot in prison in the last half-decade. With the European underworld after him as well as the international authorities--led by Roma (Priyanka Chopra), now officially carrying an Interpol badge to support her ongoing personal revenge mission--it would have been easy for the script to once again go with the chase film format of the first film( s ). But the pursuit, while still very much an important element, takes a back seat to what is essentially a tightly wound heist picture, as Don, Vardhaan, and a few new recruits (including Kunal Kapoor as a computer hacker and Lara Dutta as Don's latest right-hand moll) plot a potentially game-changing robbery in Berlin--the game of which is, naturally, constantly in flux with its players' self-serving interests and shifting allegiances.

Akhtar milks the mechanics of the complex caper for all their suspenseful worth as expertly as he handled the first film's fights, car chases, and all other manner of slam-bang mayhem--which are all still very much present here and just as polished, aided immeasurably by the work of cinematographer Jason West and editor Anand Subaya. In adding yet another layer of genre convention into the blockbuster action mix (which is already laid on top of the standard Bollywood conventions), plot and character could have easily and, to be frank, understandably been sacrificed, but that admirably isn't the case. Unlike most action sequels, this is neither a retread nor a self-contained "Don's Next Scheme" episode, but an organic continuation of existing story elements (in fact, a key plot catalyst stems from a more casually played moment in the first film) and, more importantly, character. The inevitable twists and turns are far from arbitrary, for the film remains firmly rooted in the established personalities. This does mean that the newcomers are neglected to a degree (Dutta cuts a striking figure but is only sparingly used; Sahil Shroff gets even less to do as Roma's besotted partner), but they ably serve their ultimate function in supporting the ever-compelling goings-on with the returning cast. In a rather gutsy move, Akhtar doesn't take the easy way out in bowing to the character's popularity and soften Don into a more palatable "antihero"; Don remains gleefully, unrepentantly evil (and retains his fondness for Tom and Jerry cartoons), making for a rather refreshing villain's perspective-driven actioner, and a fiercely energized Khan clearly relishes this latest opportunity to break away from his trademark roguish romantic hero persona. Even more important, however, in fueling the drama are the ever-evolving relationships between those familiar characters, the most fascinating continuing to be that between Don and Roma, whose tense and still-intense erotic electricity ignites further complications, manipulations, and uneasy yet undeniable truths.

That wicked waltz becomes quite literal in one memorable scene that is emblematic of Akhtar's savvy, narrative-focused use of Indian popular cinema tropes. Given Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy's infectiously old school funk-inflected song score (an inspired way to carry over the '70s homage vibe now that Don has no longer dons flamboyant pimpdaddy fashions this time out), it is a bit disappointing that song and dance is at a relative minimum here. But the one full-blown production number, "Zara Dil Ko Thaam Lo" ("Hold on to Your Heart"), arises where it makes story sense (and nicely mirrors the touchstone "Main Hoon Don" number in the first film), and Akhtar and West make it count in a big way, going all-out with the spectacle, marrying the memorable music with Viabhav Merchant's creative choreography and a stunning, silhouette-driven visual design. Similarly, in an especially clever touch, Akhtar trots out the old Bollywood cliché of a surprise superstar cameo in a way that actually serves, rather than distracts from, the plot.

But then it doesn't take any familiarity with Hindi film or any such conventions, or even to have seen Don, to enjoy Don 2. More than a worthy sequel, it is simply an exciting and downright fun thrill ride of a movie, period, and Farhan Akhtar deserves his due as one of the great mainstream film talents currently working anywhere, period.

Order the Don 2 DVD here.
Order the Don 2 soundtrack here.
Read my review of 2006's Don here.

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