‘Thunivu’ movie review: Bullets and bombs fail but the dialogues don’t

The film makes more than one reference to the ‘joker’. Truth be told, after The Dark Knight, it’s hard not to think of The Joker any time a maniacal man seems to be involved in a bank heist
Ajith Kumar in his newly released action heist film, 'Thunivu' directed by H Vinoth. (Photo | IMDb)
Ajith Kumar in his newly released action heist film, 'Thunivu' directed by H Vinoth. (Photo | IMDb)

How much you like Thunivu depends on how much you are willing to forgive its weak portions—and of course, how much you have missed seeing Ajith Kumar enjoy breaking bad. When he screams, “This heist is MINE!”, close your eyes and you can almost hear him shout, “This is MY f****** game!” Much like in that landmark film of his (Mankatha), here too, Ajith Kumar plays a character who’s eager to come across as a villain.

There, that’s another AK reference. To make matters easier for him, one of the characters—who is perhaps not too familiar with AK’s filmography—even asks him a pointed question: “Are you a hero or a villain?” Ajith, knowing how much we enjoy him being ‘bad’, dances about with a machine gun, unabashed in his execution of a bank heist. “Ipdi makkal panatha kollai adikkariye. Vekkamaa illa?” some hapless hostage asks him. Another star playing this character might have responded with a few dialogues to justify his actions, some persuasive speech perhaps to convince the hostage. AK, playing Dark Devil, simply replies, “Illa.” I spat out my Coke in laughter.

But each time the film steps into action—and it happens a lot especially in the first half—I kept wishing that they had ‘written’ the stunts better. In an eagerness to sometimes overwhelm us with music (which doesn’t quite do enough to sell ‘mass’ moments in this film), and of course, bullets and guns, filmmakers often tend to overlook the importance of telling a story through action.

So, what we get is AK casually walking towards seasoned criminals armed with guns, and casually ducking and spraying bullets at them. And with all due respect to his many appeals, agility isn’t one, and so, it all feels a bit too easy. There are no memorable visual ideas either to make you feel invested.

Meanwhile, Vinoth quietly begins to set up the atmosphere. He introduces us to an overwhelmed constable; a corrupt inspector; two journalists—one new and ignorant, the other aware and corrupt (a funny, dark character called Mai Pa); a rare, righteous senior police officer (Samuthirakani)… There’s variety here, but more importantly, Vinoth shows some real understanding of the symbiotic relationships that sully the system: the police and the politician, the police and the journalist…

And yet, given how long we spend inside the bank and given all the seeming urgency and action, it was hard for me not to get restless and wonder whether AK’s Dark Devil, who the music keeps referring to as a ‘gangsta’, has any real point or purpose. Or is he like The Joker, a dog chasing cars, not knowing what to do with one even if he caught one?

The film makes more than one reference to the ‘joker’, in fact. Truth be told, after The Dark Knight, it’s hard not to think of The Joker any time a maniacal man seems to be involved in a bank heist. And I think the Dark Devil definitely qualifies as a rather unhinged man—and occasionally, he can be seen wearing a mask too. However, Thunivu moves on into more serious spaces after the interval, and it’s here that I think it truly finds itself. This is when H Vinoth’s strengths come to the fore. This is also when the film subverts ideas on who’s good and who’s evil—and at one point, even attacks all of us for not really caring about morality, in the face of entertainment.

Where Samuthirakani’s policeman speaks of the financial system being a protective entity, one responsible for spreading a lot of ‘good’ in our society, Thunivu goes on to reveal its uglier side as well. Credit cards offer you a long, free window in which to pay back your debt, but what’s the catch—and more importantly, who’s the catch? Under the guise of respectable jobs, how do otherwise well-meaning people make money?

From the outside, Thunivu may seem like it’s about one man’s attack on a bank, but the film is really about his defence. The attack is instead by a larger, complex system— full of those tasked with ensuring our welfare including politicians, financial entities, police officers and the media—and the victims are, well, us. If AK’s Dark Devil is a villain, what do we call all those corrupt authorities? Who’s the bigger evil really—a terrorist or a system that fabricates such narratives to quietly, profitably terrorise countless lives? When Thunivu digs into these spaces, you see how H Vinoth can be quite enterprising.

Where a Theeran Adhigaaram Ondru played a part in vilifying an already persecuted group of migrant workers, you can see the filmmaker’s willingness to learn and evolve—and that’s heartening. In this film, very quietly, he captures the prejudice of a Tamil man towards a North Indian waiter. What truly comes through Thunivu is that H Vinoth cares, and I think that augurs well at a time when we could do with braver voices willing to take on oppressive systems.

That’s why Samuthirakani saying, “Idhu Tamil Nadu!” feels so powerful. And that’s also why that whole lengthy portion in which AK’s Dark Devil interviews three high-ranking officials—who are really scammers—turns out to be both educative and so entertaining. It’s probably among the rare instances when I didn’t exactly flinch from a lathi landing (which must still make us uncomfortable, of course). Even here, Vinoth is careful to point out the hypocrisy of how the police handles a `500 theft, as opposed to a `500 crore financial crime.

All the action needed to be written better (I enjoyed what Manju Warrier does in the film though); the flashback needed to be less manipulative; a song like Chilla Chilla needed to be edited out; the final action flourish, with all the ships and helicopters, needed to be less tiresome; the film’s end needed to be punchier. And YET, I enjoyed certain spaces in Thunivu—like how it’s not easy to decide whether the Dark Devil does what he does for good—or for revenge. As AK says, “You asked for God.

But God sent the devil.” Such smart moments make it hard to be unforgiving of Thunivu, even despite all the flab. For every forgettable exchange of bullets, there’s a dialogue that’s fierier. Like when a bad guy asks AK for forgiveness and he retorts, “But your CIBIL score is low.” That there is violence worth the price of the ticket.

Director: H Vinoth 
Cast: Ajith Kumar, Manju Warrier, Samuthirakani, John Koken 
Rating: 3/5

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