Directed by: Shankar Shanmugan || Produced by: Allirajah Subaskaran
Screenplay by: Shankar Shanmugan, Bahuleyan Jeyamohan, Madhan Karky || Starring: Rajinkanth, Akshay Kumar, Amy Jackson, Sudhanshu Pandey, Adil Hussain, Ishari K. Ganesh, Kalabhavan Shajohn
Music by: A. R. Rahman || Cinematography: Nirav Shah || Edited by: Lewellyn Anthony Gonzalvez || Country: India || Language: Tamil
Running Time: 147 minutes
If you’ve ever perused the Internet for weird or inexplicable set-pieces in popular cinema, be it bizarre comedic gags, impossible long-takes, bombastic action scenes, surrealist musical numbers, or some combination of the aforementioned, sooner or later aspiring cinephiles stumble upon the wacky, inexplicable stunts of South Indian Cinema. Indian filmmaking in general, including the internationally popular Hindi-language blockbusters of the Mumbai (Bombay)-based studios, collectively known as Bollywood, feel over-the-top and melodramatic relative to most contemporary Western filmmaking; and yet, the production stables of India’s Malayalam, Telugu, and Tamil-language studios, together referred to as South Indian Cinema, are on a whole separate level of crazy. The most comparable aspects of South Indian Cinema (SIC) and Bollywood are their (1) long running times (2.5-3.25 hours, on average), (2) situational comedy melodrama, itself reminiscent of classical Hollywood musicals from the 1930s-1960s, and (3) colorful, well choreographed song-numbers. In terms of high-concept genre set-pieces, however, including and especially cartoonish action sequences, SIC amps the cheese well past eleven.
A saving grace, or perhaps the defining feature of SIC action filmmaking, is its tongue-in-cheek sense of humor and willingness to self-parody, something which Bollywood films are less comfortable doing. Hindi filmmakers are more inclined to take their characters and narrative conflicts seriously to a fault, embracing such cornball melodrama that their musicals either succeed with flying colors (e.g. 3 Idiots , Devdas , Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge ) or fall flat on their faces (e.g. every Karan Johar movie ever made). There’s little middle-ground in Mumbai cinema.
SIC storytelling, on the other hand, specifically their big-budget, high-concept blockbusters, feel less interested in familial or relationship-oriented drama so much as cornball spectacle. SIC focuses on cinematic extremes like most Indian cinema, but in a different manner than Bollywood. S. S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali (2015, 2017) is a good example of this, but numerous SIC blockbusters travel far beyond that in terms of sheer nuttiness. The problem with this hyperbolic approach to filmic spectacle is that it requires uncanny directorial precision to control, without which these movies collapse faster than a Shah Rukh Khan comedy skit. Another way of comparing SIC to its northern Mumbai counterpart is noting how the former places less emphasis on character melodrama, song, and dance in favor of fantastical action and cornball special FX, meaning that SIC blockbusters tend to be less preachy and more entertaining.
The downside to SIC’s typical focus on mindless spectacle is just that, its mindlessness. Whereas a fantastical odyssey like Baahubali strikes the right balance between a generic heroes’ journey and psychedelic action sequences, a film like Shankar Shanmugam’s 2.0 tosses the scale out the window. 2.0, a standalone sequel to the likewise FX-driven Enthiran (2010, also by Shanmugam), isn’t so much a complete movie as it is a series of wacky visual FX exercises on a limited budget. 2.0 is the most expensive Indian film to date, produced for around 570 crore rupees (~$80 million), which is not peanuts, but would be modest funding for a Hollywood blockbuster; as expected, instead of focusing their resources on one or two major set-pieces or mixing and matching practical FX with computer generated imagery (CGI, an “every trick in the book” approach), 2.0 blows its load every chance it gets; cheaper, less distracting miniatures or modest pyrotechnics could be substituted for digital FX in numerous cases (e.g. a semi-truck crashing on a freeway, characters handling birds in an aviary), while other sequences (e.g. various “slasher” homages where minor characters are killed by autonomous clouds of flying cellphones) suffer from creativity overload, and could’ve progressed the story with similar but less elaborate special FX.
The end result of 2.0’s extreme overuse of digital FX for almost every plot-point is that the movie feels like it maintains viewers’ attention in the same manner a person waves shiny objects in front of a cat. I was reminded of films by Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich that rely on constant superfluous digital FX, forced comic relief, and overindulgent action sequences to (1) trick audiences into believing a story is progressing when it’s treading water, and (2) bloat their films’ running times to increase a marketing sense of “epicness.” What I’m trying to say is that most of 2.0 — more or less all of its first two acts — is complete filler, and half that filler consists of unnecessary special FX that resemble a 1990s Saturday morning cartoon show.
The rest of the movie’s filler involves its haphazard excuse for character development. Rajinikanth’s human protagonist is forgettable, while the English fembot in brownface (Amy Jackson) is an emotional flatline who serves no purpose in the movie other than to move heavy objects. Various minor characters like mustache-twirling villain, Sudhanshu Pandey, exist out of convenience to justify Act Three happening, while the most interesting character of the bunch, Akshay Kumar, a sort of comic book-version of Salim Ali, is ignored until over an hour into the film.
2.0 operates via a series of boring expository sequences interspersed with laughable digital FX set-pieces until its final half hour, when the movie transforms into complete, glorious schlock on a dime. Rajinikanth, who spends most of the movie wasting his screen presence on either lackluster chemistry with Amy Jackson or in a comical toupee as his secondary role, the android super-soldier, Chitti, comes alive in the movie’s gonzo finale; 2.0’s action centerpiece is more or less an Indian blockbuster version of a Power Rangers (1993-1996) episode, featuring everything from hilarious CGI stunts to gigantic guns to even a megazord battle. The cherry on top is Rajinikanth’s third starring role as Chitti 3.0 (the film’s title refers to the “2nd Edition” of Rajinikanth’s android hero), a superlative comedic performance that puts his other two roles and the rest of the film’s comic relief to shame.
Shankar Shanmugan’s 2.0 might otherwise be the greatest big-budget comedy short of all time if it excised its first 100 minutes. Other than its wonderful finale, though, the only worthwhile elements of this movie involve the cheesy but endearing backstory of Akshay Kumar’s ecoterrorist villain. Like Ian McDiarmid’s Emperor Palpatine in the awful, awful Star Wars prequels (1999, 2002, 2005), Kumar’s antagonist is the lone figure with any sort of passion or motivation, and is the sole character about whom I gave a shit. As much as I applaud most South Indian blockbusters for dialing their special FX and general craziness past eleven, those aspects are wasted on this bloated mess that panders and preaches as much as any Bollywood film, but with none of the fun musical numbers, lovable characterizations, or charismatic lead performances endemic to the Hindi filmmaking industry.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Overzealous in terms of special FX and lifeless in terms of characters or performances, save one, 2.0 is an exercise in overindulgent, big-budget vanity. Rajinikanth is a misfire in 2/3 of his roles, Amy Jackson is pure filler, and Sudhanshu Pandey is a walking plot hole.
— However… 2.0’s hilarious action centerpiece is as entertaining as anything I’ve seen in the past five years. Akshay Kumar tries his best as the movie’s chief villain.
—> NOT RECOMMENDED
? Given how anemic and unresponsive the local Chennai government was before Kumar’s terrorist plot, yet how decisive they were following it, this movie demonstrates how using violence to achieve a political goal works!