Seems like yesterday I was hoping for a Ayushmann Khurrana film that set him free from the shackles of social reform (it was seven weeks ago, when Doctor G released). Just like that, Anirudh Iyer’s An Action Hero releases—no message, no redemption arc, only Khurrana being shallow and calculating and eminently watchable. All I can say is, if I knew it was wish-fulfilment month, I’d have asked for something else.
Maanav is not a stand-in for Khurrana; this is clear five minutes in. He’s an action hero, something Khurrana has only been in one film, and doesn’t seem to do middle-of-the-road dramas, Khurrana’s bread and butter. Right away, we know this won't be the meta-fiction of Fan (Iyer allows himself one such reference, when Maanav tells a reporter, in all seriousness, “I have a social responsibility”). Instead, An Action Hero is a sly, nimble thriller, as unimpressed by Bollywood as it is scathing about the people who hate it.
After a long day’s shoot in Haryana, Maanav just wants to take his expensive new car for a spin. But the entitled younger brother of a local councilor has been waiting for a photo-op, getting ominously angrier with every brush-off. When Maanav zips off in his car, Vicky chases after, catching up on a deserted forest road. There’s an argument, a threat, a push. Suddenly, Maanav is standing over the dead body of a young man he just met.
Things get much worse when Vicky’s older brother enters the picture. Maanav, having fled to London (“It’s what Nirav Modi and Vijay Mallya did”), is considering turning himself in when Bhoora turns up in kurta-pyjama and dowdy coat, shooting two cops who are making a house call on the star. He has a haircut as uncool as Anton Chigurh’s, and, as played by Jaideep Ahlawat, has something of his bloody single-mindedness too. He won't kill Maanav softly, insisting on hand-to-hand combat. But years of pretending to be an action star have turned Maanav into a surprisingly tough customer.
Thus begins one of the funnier deadly pursuits in recent Hindi film. As Bhoora finds his target slip out of his grasp again and again, his irritation builds. This is where the film really starts to cook, because there’s no one better than Ahlawat at looking disgusted at the plans of god and man. Khurrana is a good match, with as baleful a stare. Neither is a classical fighter—though Maanav tries some fancy kicks and flips—so their encounters have a slapdash quality, in particular a messy encounter in the kitchen.
As with most Anand L. Rai productions, the writing (by Iyer) is salty and the characters eccentric. There’s an image-conscious don, a thoroughly unlucky assassin, a chef-lawyer-hacker. I loved the Haryanvi journalist who mangles car names, and the henchmen who Maanav tries to bribe and who decline saying, “We love our job.” There’s also a running babble of news anchors yelling about Maanav with no evidence or interest in what’s actually going on. Iyer is attempting to send up the depravity of TV news in India, but it wears thin after a while, not because it’s an inaccurate impression but because the original is so ridiculous that there’s no room to satirise. More interesting, I thought, are Maanav’s actions after Vicky’s death. It’s absolutely an accident, and Vicky was the aggressor. But Maanav’s instincts are the same as any rich, powerful kid in this situation: flee, cover up, throw money at the problem (Akshay Kumar, playing himself in a funny cameo, responds to Maanav’s plea for advice with a plea of his own: don’t tell anyone you met me). Bhoora and Maanav both dismiss their hangers-on as ‘fakes’, but their own facades crack as well, revealing two men driven by ego and self-preservation rather than honour or any innate heroism.
Watching the hysteria build back in India, the don tells Maanav that, as a famous person who’s slipped up, he’s now seen by all as an opportunity. This is the spirit that animates An Action Hero, a society on the edge resentful of the rich and powerful, waiting to tear them down even as they grimly hang on. To me the final gambit felt too clever, an overreach both difficult to buy and unnecessary. I liked the sideshows but all I really need is Ahlawat and Khurrana in a room, trying to hurt each other’s feelings.