Valimai Movie Review: Flying motorcycles fail to liven up this soulless thriller

Valimai is another case of what-might-have-been, but as it exists, I’ll remember it as a hodge-podge of a few impressive bike stunts
Ajith Kumar in Valimai
Ajith Kumar in Valimai

I suspect that if in the future I remember Valimai at all, it will be in the form of some hazy visuals of flying motorbikes—something akin to that childhood videogame, Road Rash, in which you tried to kick people off their motorbikes. There are very many set-pieces in this film concerning racing bikes and riders wearing fancy gear and Halloween helmets—they happen on the road, on the dirt, on a track, and one particularly admirable portion comes when a group of bikers attempt to rescue one of their own from a fast-moving van. I kept feeling a sense of empathy almost—not adrenaline-bursting enjoyment, mind you—because the stunts clearly must have involved a great deal of work in conceptualisation and execution. They did not have to work as hard; they did not have to try to create such original action moments in our cinema, but they have—and I respect that. However, I wasn’t blown away at all, and consumed the action blocks as a passive observer, waiting in vain for the fulfilling emotional moments that I hoped would add meaning to these stunts.

Director: H Vinoth

Cast: Ajith Kumar, Huma Qureshi, Kartikeya

Interestingly, this is not a film lacking in ideas, oh no. It constantly tries; in fact, it is almost desperate to keep you engaged, worried sick about losing you even for a moment. Its rapidity in storytelling translates into a refusal to allow you time to breathe, and this, as it happens so often, gets tiresome soon—and in a film that’s indulgently long at 178 minutes, it is a bit of a bother when you get weary quite early. Even the setups at the beginning don’t exactly work. Right off the bat, there’s something rather affected in the way a policeman communicates his yearning for a ‘super police’. The opening fight scene doesn’t exactly cover itself in glory either. And the lesser said about the Naanga Vera Madhri song picturisation that follows, the better. To see a rather stiff Ajith Kumar labour in dance for five minutes isn’t the best teaser of what is to come during the following 150 minutes.

Ajith Kumar plays Arjun, an Assistant Commissioner of Police appointed by the CM for his racing exploits—a nice touch given all the racing sequences in this film. It could just be me, but I thought I kept spotting influences of the Batman films in Valimai. Arjun may not be a vigilante, but he’s a ‘super detective’ and decidedly against killing. He is uncomfortable even with breaking bones but has a justification for it. There are also long chase sequences at night on bridges and flyovers, with cop cars hardly a match for the ‘Arjun-mobile’. One moment on a bridge as Arjun’s bike seems cornered by a number of police vehicles reminded me of an idea in The Dark Knight Rises. Allow me to persist with this, but the villain, Naren (Kartikeya), is a bit of a Joker, isn’t he? He considers rules and laws to be a joke, and can often be found laughing maniacally in defeat. In one scene, he even says that straight arrows like Arjun are those who society considers as being jokers. I rather liked Kartikeya in this role, and even if his character seems prone to occasional bursts of puerility, the actor tries to sell it all with conviction. While on influences, there’s a twist on the famous line from The Usual Suspects: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not exist.” Here, it goes, “The greatest the devil ever pulled was convincing everyone he is god”—a line that appropriately reflects the villain’s worldview.

While on god and devil, the villain and his group of biker minions belong to an organisation called Satan’s Slaves, a name I had trouble taking seriously. They are on bikes what the Dothraki (Game of Thrones) are on horses, including all the ululating and the throat-slashing. I wish someone, at least once in this three-hour-long film, mocked the group’s name. Too many adults take the name too seriously. The childishness is intended, I suppose, given that the leader and the members of the group seem predominantly to be a group of misled youngsters, lacking in direction and leadership.

The big problem with Valimai is how it seems to believe that audience engagement is directly proportional to the volume of information contained in a film. As underwhelming thrillers have done so often in the past, Valimai, in its quest to be a thrilling cat-and-mouse game, dumps information by the truckloads. There’s a modern control team, a group of professionals who let out tribal war cries when motivated.  The tech-savvy villain relies on a large screen in his strange living space for communication. There’s a ‘rag browser’. Someone mentions the phrase, ‘dark web’. There are Ukraine-trained hackers in this film. Even when Arjun’s brother is being humiliated for being unemployed, someone helpfully points out that as many as 410 engineering graduates had turned beggars and that he was likely to be 411. I wasn’t exactly sure what to do with this number. Meanwhile, there’s a drug angle too, with cocaine being transported from Colombia and getting stolen in Chennai. There are all sorts of addictions to boot. There are QR codes, CCTV cameras, hired assassins, chain-snatchers, murderers… It’s a lot to take in.

But hey, at least there’s no forced exploration of romance thankfully, even if one could so easily have been fashioned with Huma Qureshi's character. She tries to be useful from time to time in this film, and that’s really the most you can say about that. As for Arjun, in between administrative processes being name-dropped in urgent conversations, he can also be constantly found barking orders: “Check that! Get this! Do that! Figure this!” At one point, his team almost nabs the villain, but then, he gives them the slip. The whole room bursts into a regretful, strangely synchronised ‘ohhhh’, with everyone standing up. I laughed out loud.

It’s not for lack of trying though. There’s the whole ideological struggle between selflessness (Arjun) and selfishness (Naren). Naren even points out the flawed nature of selflessness, and like F.R.I.E.N.D.S Joey, enthusiastically points out that selfishness is the only morality in society, and speaks of how even a mother’s love is guided by self-preservation. Valimai is also critical of how society is so obsessed with rigid definitions of success that it doesn’t seem to notice how the psyche of youngsters gets affected. I thought these spaces were interesting, even if this film doesn’t show any interest in expanding on them. Valimai seems to believe that its Valimai lies in rapidly hurtling from set-piece to set-piece, from event to event. This is why even an apparent attempt to slow things down—that second-half flashback—ends up seeming half-hearted and manipulative.

The mass moments don’t really take off either, with Ajith’s slow-mo walks, backed by the score (which I liked), getting repeated once too often. The dialogues aren’t exactly great as well. Arjun, for instance, goes on and on about how pelted stones must be used to construct a castle on which the victim should sit proudly. He goes on: “The necks of stone-pelters should hurt as they crane their necks, trying to look up at us…” It’s a strangely long, rather unattractively worded line, said at a time when you are trying to make peace with the fairly peripheral Sophia suddenly getting fast-tracked into becoming a senior cop. Arjun, in dialogue, often comes through as rather sanctimoniously parental, and you wonder if this is why his brothers in the film don’t exactly seem influenced by the good words of advice at home.

I also thought of The Dark Knight, when Valimai shows us a good man being pushed towards the dark side, being converted by the sales pitch that the cruel society is apathetic to his unemployment. Perhaps rather problematically, there’s something about immigrants taking up jobs, and I’m pretty sure I caught a sense of resentment about it. When you think about who the villains of this filmmaker’s Theeran Adhigaram Ondru were, perhaps it’s worth thinking about whether there’s a pattern to H Vinoth’s commentary on immigrants.

Again, like in The Dark Knight, there’s a point in this film when the lawless villain’s cynicism gets defeated by self-sacrificing love. The problem is, this film isn’t as interested in exploring these conflicts, and furthermore, it suffers from having a rather charmless protagonist, whose mental makeup we don’t exactly get great insights into. Valimai is another case of what-might-have-been, but as it exists, I’ll remember it as a hodge-podge of a few impressive bike stunts. If after three hours of a film, all you can truly recall is the visual of flying bikes hurtling into each other, I suppose that’s not a great advertisement of the film’s quality.

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