It’s easy to forget that Rajnikanth was once an actor who played real characters and delivered enduring performances. For a generation of viewers who know him only from the Chuck Norris-style jokes and memes, or from blockbusters like Baasha, Sivaji and Enthiran, it would be wise to watch some of his earlier work – I strongly recommend Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathi. This is before Rajnikanth became trapped in roles whose only purpose was to further the cult of Rajni.
Kabali, directed by Pa Ranjith, is an attempt to tell a coherent story, but the makers can’t resist the temptation to cash in on Rajni-mania. The actor stars as an ageing don with a heart of gold, and he’s just been released from a long stint in prison. Moments before he leaves his jail cell, the 65-year-old star performs pull-ups on a cross bar without breaking a sweat. It’s a scene explicitly designed to send his fans into a collective tizzy.
Set largely in Malaysia, the film is a violent drama about an inter-gang rivalry. Rajni’s character Kabali is pitted against an Asian villain, Tommy Lee (Taiwanese actor Winston Cho), whose men are responsible for the death of Kabali’s wife (Radhika Apte). His rivals recruit a slick female assassin (Dhansika) to kill Kabali before he becomes a thorn in their flesh again.
The film’s first half moves briskly as flashbacks detail our hero’s rise to power, and the history behind Kabali and Tommy Lee’s rivalry. Also, a key plot twist reveals the real identity of a significant character, which subsequently leads to another major discovery. Post intermission, however, the film becomes an orgy of gunfire and violence, and any semblance of plot and story quickly goes out of the window.
Is it merely enough to give fans a larger-than-life Rajni who delivers punchy dialogues, dresses like a dude, walks with a swagger, and yanks out a wrench from inside his sleeve to pummel his rivals? As it turns out, it’s not. That formula’s gotten rusty. Which is why Kabali, while definitely an improvement on Lingaa, is still a disappointment.
I’m going with two out of five. Rajni still commands the screen, but the film is a bloated mess.