Phantom review: Saif, Katrina and Kabir Khan avenge 26/11 Bollywood style
Kabir Khan's Phantom is a patriotic action thriller fantasy where Saif Ali Khan and Katrina Kaif avenge 26/11 attacks in typical Bollywood style.
Patriotic redemption, Bollywood style, is Katrina Kaif standing outside Taj Mahal Hotel, seven years after 26/11 and being served a free glass of cutting chai. Bizarre? Of course it is. It’s Bollywood and a fantasy, after all. And that, in a nutshell, is Phantom.
Based on Hussain Zaidi’s book, Mumbai Avengers, this film is a patriotic action thriller fantasy. Directed by Kabir Khan, Phantom follows a dreamed-up response to avenge the devastating terrorist attacks on Mumbai, conducted by Lashkar-e-Taiba in 2008. The book’s premise — Khan is the one who gave Zaidi the idea of writing it — holds plenty of punch and promise. In it, a retired army officer puts together a team comprising of a cop, a techie, a scientist and two army officers to chase down terrorists across the globe.
In the film co-produced by Sajid Nadiadwala, Khan replaces the team with a one-man army: disgraced army officer, Daniyal Khan (Saif Ali Khan). India’s Research and Analysis Wing comes up with the idea of creating a “phantom”, or a mysterious hero like the crime fighting hero from the comic books who was “the ghost who walks”. This tagline might be more befitting for Kabir Khan’s Phantom actually. Even if Saif had sleepwalked through the film, he might have seemed more alive and interested. The only time he lights up is when he talks about sharing a cup of tea with Ms. Equally Clueless (Kaif) at the Taj in Mumbai. You can almost hear “Wah Taj” jingle in the background.
But unfortunately, this is a full-length feature film, and not a 30-second ad. Daniyal the Phantom is basically a poor man’s Ethan Hunt (from Mission Impossible). He’s the sort who can hang from water pipes in an American prison as comfortably as he can skulk around unnoticed in Pakistan. And so, we see him hatching and executing elaborate and astounding plans to kill the bad guys.
In the process, the action takes us on a whirlwind tour of London, Chicago, Beirut, Syria and Pakistan. Cinematographer Aseem Mishra’s camera creates a picturesque drama out of smoke, dust and snow-covered locations. The focus is on showing action stunts in different landscapes. It might please some, but we’ve seen far better chases and more tense covert operations in films like D-Day and Baby.
Enemies that are supposed to be deadly and powerful prove to be about as dangerous as dead mice in a lab, considering the ease with which Daniyal reaches and kills them. In one case, it literally takes Daniyal’s pretty sidekick Nawaz (Kaif) a couple of seconds to identify the bad guy. All because he hasn’t changed his distinctive smoking style, even though he has gone through the trouble of getting plastic surgery in order to be unrecognisable. Explosions follow and it’s just a matter of how one explosion might be different from the other.
It is the section in Pakistan, in the second half, that actually feels like a story. Tension tightens the script as the ISI and Daniyal play hide and seek. In an effort to add realism and gravitas to Phantom, Khan spends a considerable amount of time on a Pakistani nurse (Sohaila Kapoor) whose son died as a suicide bomber on a LeT mission. The idea is to show how terrorism may be nurtured in Pakistan but it is as harmful to Pakistanis as it is to Indians.
However, to make sure you don’t forget that this is a Bollywood film, Nawaz tells Daniyal, just as he heads off to carry out the most important of his missions, that she thinks he looks so good wearing the peasant-inspired, kameez and bandana that he shouldn’t change his outfit. Because after all, his hotness is what a man wants to be reassured of before he goes out to kill a man in enemy territory. How cute!
Despite some slick action scenes as well as carefully-designed sets that recreate Syria and Pakistan, all comes to naught as the film reaches for Titanic ending. It ends on a predictably emotional and patriotic note, with raised salutes, a speech on Indian pride and tears. The onus of patriotic sentiments rests on the overenthusiastic RAW officer Samit Misra (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), who is clearly better at comedy than drama.
The main attraction of Phantom is seeing bad guys who are thinly-disguised versions of real life terrorists, die terrible deaths. Daniyal takes on Sajid Mir, David Headley, Zaki-ur-Rehman Lakhvi and Hafiz, sorry Haaris, Saeed.
There are times when the film attempts to manipulate us emotionally by reminding us of the horrors of the 26/11 attacks. To show what the Taj Mahal Hotel meant to people before it became associated with terror, Nawaz sniffles about how her daddy took her to the hotel, to have tea and chocolate pastries.
If you’re in Mumbai, go down to Colaba and take a walk alongside the Taj Mahal Hotel. Watch the tourists and remember for a moment the images of the hotel’s distinctive dome with plumes of black smoke winding out of it. It’ll be more poignant than 147 minutes of Phantom.
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