It takes a special kind of man to scare the bejesus out of bad guys while wearing a purple polo shirt. Indian actor and stuntman Akshay Kumar is exactly that sort of guy in Rowdy Rathore, a frothy, violent Bollywood action-comedy that marks its star’s return to the kind of two-fisted shoot-’em-ups that made him famous in the ’90s. And in case you’re wondering, you needn’t be even passingly familiar with the actor to buy into his considerable charms as Rowdy Rathore’s main characters.
Yep, that’s “characters” with an “s” on the end. Kumar plays dual roles as both an uncompromising rural supercop named Vikram Rathore and his fast-talking identical twin, a Mumbai thief and con artist named Shiva.
The film is divided into two distinct halves separated by a nutso intermission segue. The first half is a romantic comedy that introduces us to Shiva and his partner in crime, a Joe Pesci look-alike known as 2G (Paresh Ganatra). Shiva is very good at his trade; he can steal the shirt off a police officer’s back and pick a heart-attack victim’s pockets while performing life-saving CPR. He vows to change his ways when he falls for Paro (Sonakshi Sinha), a beautiful young woman in town for her cousin’s wedding. Things get complicated when a 6-year-old girl latches onto Shiva, mistaking him for her father.
The second half shifts gears dramatically, as Shiva is drawn into the violent drama playing out around the girl and her father, a thoroughly badass cop who was supposedly killed when he took on a band of state-backed criminals that has taken over a small village. For reasons that don’t make a lot of sense, Shiva assumes the identity of Vikram Rathore and sets out to finish what the policeman started. He morphs into the film’s title character, a wily avenger who is equal parts conman and supercop. With the help of Paro and a small group of police officers who were unwaveringly loyal to Vikram, Rowdy Rathore sets out to clean up the town. Or maybe just blow it up.
For those uninitiated in the ways of Bollywood, Rowdy Rathore makes for a pretty good introduction. It boasts all the hallmarks of a Hindi blockbuster—crazy tonal shifts, elaborate musical numbers, slapstick comedy, scads of melodrama—and it packages them in a way that is accessible to American audiences. Unlike a lot of Bollywood films, most of Rathore’s jokes don’t depend on a unique Hindi cultural perspective, so the film’s comedic beats translate beautifully for Western viewers.
Director Prabhu Deva, who is also a noted Bollywood actor, dancer, and choreographer, borrows plenty of tricks from both American and Asian action films, but he has a knack for cherry-picking the fun stuff and leaving the more distracting elements behind. The result is a grab-bag of swish pans, jump cuts, and digital image manipulation that, unlike so many contemporary Western action films, never shortchanges the action sequences with too much shaky camera work and frenetic editing. There’s a balance, after all, and Deva finds it. Rather than distracting the viewer from the story, the stylistic flourishes actually work in the film’s favor; when Shiva breaks the fourth wall and manipulates the narrative by rewinding or zooming in on something that’s caught his attention, it clues us in on an important plot element. As Shiva says in one of the movie’s percussion-heavy musical numbers, when he moves forward, the rest of the world moves in reverse. It’s his world; everyone else just happens to be living in it.
The plot is nonsense, of course, but it doesn’t matter. What really makes Rowdy Rathore work is its star. As ridiculous as the story is, Kumar sells it. I bought him as a charming, Chaplin-esque goofball at the beginning of the film, I bought him as a humorless badass later on, and I bought him as a weird mashup of the two at the end. It’s a remarkable transformation. When he single-handedly stands down two dozen armed thugs in the film’s midpoint set piece and then goes to work on them with a circular saw blade (most of the gore is implied rather than shown), there’s absolutely no trace of the rakish thief the audience got to know just a few minutes ago. He tells the heavies that death will have to go through every last one of them in order to get to him, and you know what? I believe it. No wonder this guy is a movie star.