It would be a stretch to describe Ramgopal Varma‘s new film Veerappan as a return to form for the once-maverick director, but this much can be said: the film is more coherent than a lot of his recent work. 

Varma, who is clearly having trouble hiding his awe for Veerappan, describes the notorious smuggler as ”the most dangerous man who ever lived” in a title card at the start of the film. He goes on to underlay every scene with a deafening background score whose chorus chants ”Veer veer Veerappan” repeatedly, as if adding to the legend of the ruthless brigand.

The film is a fairly straightforward story about Veerappan’s rise to power in the dense Tamil Nadu-Karnataka forests that he lorded over for nearly 20 years before he was killed in 2004. We watch his gang brutally killing policemen and civilians, slaying elephants to procure their ivory tusks, and smuggling sandalwood across a well-connected network. In Sandeep Bhardwaj, Varma has landed an actor who looks eerily close to Veerappan, but the script reduces its protagonist to a one-note character that has little to do other than snarl menacingly and hack away at luckless victims.

A woefully inept Sachin Joshi (also the film’s producer) is cast as the leader of the Special Task Force that’s been set up to smoke the bandit out of his hiding place. Giving Joshi competition in the Olympics for bad acting is Lisa Ray, playing the widow of a slain officer, who’s recruited to help the mission by befriending Veerappan’s wife Muthulakshmi (Usha Jadhav) and passing on crucial info to the cops. Lisa, for her part, appears to have strolled onto the wrong set. She makes ominous faces at the camera, and eyes Muthulakshmi so creepily, it’s as if she’s auditioning for one of Varma’s horror films.

The body count piles up during the film’s two hours running time, but the brutal killings are not for the fainthearted. There are some skillfully executed shootout scenes like one in which the authorities close in on Veerappan’s gang while they’re making their way through a waterfall. But these are small pleasures in a largely disappointing film that never goes beyond the obvious.

Varma takes frequent liberties with the truth in this remake of his own Kannada film Killing Veerappan, but what you leave the cinema with at the end are shattered eardrums from the incessant background music. 

I’m going with two out of five.

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