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-[Film Reviews]-, SOUTH ASIAN CINEMA, South Indian Cinema

‘Kaithi’ (2019): Assault on Another Precinct 13

Directed by: Lokesh Kanagaraj || Produced by: S. R. Prakashbabu, S. R. Prabhu, Thiruppur Vivek

Screenplay by: Lokesh Kanagaraj, Pon Parthiban || Starring: Karthik Sivakumar, Sunil Kumar, Arjun Das, Harish Uthaman, George Maryan, Dheena, Ramana, Hareesh Peradi

Music by: Sam C. S. || Cinematography: Sathyan Sooryan || Edited by: Philomin Raj || Country: India || Language: Tamil

Running Time: 146 minutes

I’ve stated before my problems with cinematic violence in Indian filmmaking, whether from Hindi-language productions in Bollywood, Dravidian-language productions from South Indian Cinema, or elsewhere on the subcontinent. As inconsistent and often incompetent as Hollywood can be with hand-to-hand combat, particularly in its blockbusters, mainstream American movies’ problems with depicting fluid, legible, and relatable violence pail in comparison to those of the largest national film culture on the planet. I have never understood this trend given Indian cinema’s foundation atop the film musical — no other national or regional film industry rivals the country in terms of cinematic song-and-dance — and the numerous stylistic similarities between filming action and dance (e.g. complex choreography, fluid camerawork, their use in pacing a story, etc.). As much as I love Indian filmmaking, most action throughout Indian cinema fluctuates between inappropriate computer generated (CG) mayhem in Hindi melodramas (e.g. Dhoom 3 [2013], Krrish [2003, 2006, 2013]) and excessive slow-motion nonsense in Telugu (see Mahesh Babu), Tamil (e.g. Master [2021]), and Kannada (e.g. Yuvarathnaa [2021]) thrillers.

Left: Karthik Sivakumar (left) and Sunil Kumar (right) drive a cargo truck loaded with unconscious police officers in need of medical attention while pursued by hostile gangsters. Top Right: Arjun Das (center) offers a bounty on all law enforcement involved in a recent drug bust of his cartel. Bottom Right: George Maryan (center left, foreground) communicates with Kumar with help from several random civilians trapped in their fortified police headquarters.

Exceptions to a disappointing trend are always welcome, however, which is what Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Kaithi (English: “Prisoner”) represents, along with a select handful of other films like Magadheera (2009), Haider (2014), Baahubali (2015, 2017), and Padmaavat (2018). Kaithi is that much more striking, though, because it spends zero effort to blend disparate genres, shoehorn obnoxious comic relief characters and unnecessary love interests into its story, or appeal to a wider audience in any way beyond action fans. Kaithi, a potent thriller about a former convict hired to rescue police under assault from a vicious gang, pays homage to everything from Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) to Die Hard (1988) to Dredd (2012). It is far and away one of the better Indian genre films of the modern era, and represents a benchmark for Indian action filmmaking that has little patience for prolific digital FX or cartoonish fight choreography.

To back up a bit, Kaithi is set up for success via its killer premise that references every successful action movie built around vehicular chase sequences (e.g. Speed [1994], Fury Road [2015]) and a relentless assault upon a single location (e.g. The Raid [2011]). Kaithi combines these traditional action formulas by intercutting its chase plot with its assault plot, giving both halves of the movie equal thematic and emotional weight. Specifically, Kaithi involves a massive police drug bust of a local gang, which prompts several retaliatory actions by said gang, including poisoning most of the officers involved at a concurrent police retirement party, as well as a siege of said police force’s precinct office to take back those drugs. Plotline #1 follows protagonist Karthik Sivakumar, a recently released, seemingly unrelated criminal arrested by accident near the retirement party, who is coerced by costar Sunil Kumar into driving the poisoned, unconscious officers to safety in exchange for favors for his daughter (Baby Monica), who was born into an orphanage while Sivakumar was imprisoned and whom Sivakumar has never met. These characters are pursued by the villainous gang in an action-packed, multi-part chase that dovetails with Plotline #2, which involves other gang members, led by the baritone-voiced Arjun Das, assaulting the local understaffed police headquarters. Due to the aforementioned mass poisoning of law enforcement, those headquarters are manned by a single, recently transferred officer (George Maryan) and a handful of civilian passersby.

Editor Philomin Raj maintains the film’s admirable pace throughout its 146-minute running time by reference-level parallel editing, which intercuts both plotlines to escalate tension from set-piece to set-piece. With such a long runtime, Kaithi retains enough banter between its cast within both storylines to lighten the film’s dark, intense mood, as well the dark lighting (the entire movie takes place over a single night). There’s enough downtime to ensure the action doesn’t grow exhausting, but there’s enough action in different flavors to keep the pace snappy.

Director Kanagaraj does his action sequences favors by mixing together a variety of different set-pieces (e.g. chase sequences, hand-to-hand combat, shootouts, etc.) with minimal CG embellishment and allowing his star to be vulnerable. Unlike countless other mainstream blockbuster movies, Sivakumar is not always an unstoppable badass, nor does he always move in comical, ridiculous slow-motion. This makes Kaithi’s action so much more tense and interesting than, say, numerous flicks starring Mahesh Babu, Rajinikanth, Puneeth Rajkumar, and Salman Khan, whose action sequences often feel like pointless jokes that aren’t funny. That’s not to say Kaithi doesn’t have a sense of humor, though, far from it; the film is riddled with dark humor as a function of its physical stunts and hardcore violence, and it ends with one of the most effective, satisfying displays of over-the-top firepower in recent film history.

Sivakumar (right) and Maryan (left) blast a host of criminals with the latter group’s own confiscated M134 Minigun.

All in all, Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Kaithi is not a superhit blockbuster I can recommend to all audiences, nor is it a near flawless, streamlined genre masterpiece that will convert those who dislike explicit violence on screen. It makes sacrifices to create a 2.5 hour Indian homage to classical (1970s-2000s) Hollywood action films, but its most impressive feat may be how well it imitates regional films of that era while neither (A) ripping off particular sequences beat-for-beat nor (B) forcing contrived Indian filmmaking clichés into its script (e.g. musical sequences that don’t advance the plot or internalize characters, pointless guest appearances by dwarfish comedians, excessive slow-motion, obnoxious musical stings, etc.). In committing to a Western action style against its South Asian backdrop, Kaithi learns from previous action greats to create an original cinematic playground that feels as refreshing as it is familiar.

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SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Well paced, cast, and lit, Kaithi executes filmmaking basics to highlight its action influences, which range from John Carpenter to Alex Garland, yet never forgets its South Indian cinematic roots. The film stands apart from its Indian contemporaries from both the Hindi-language Bollywood productions to the north and its slow-motion obsessed neighbors in the south through its dedication to a singular genre, tone, and audiovisual style.

However… Kaithi’s genre specialization, lack of stock characters, and disdain for mass audience-friendly clichés may scare away folks uninterested in hardcore cinematic violence or references to John McTiernan’s Predator (1987).

—> RECOMMENDED for an action-packed good time!

? I appreciate how the filmmakers emphasized the amount of recoil and sheer loudness a minigun generates. It’s not like firing a .22 Long Rifle, for God’s sake.

About The Celtic Predator

I love movies, music, video games, and big, scary creatures.

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