Romeo Akbar Walter movie review: John Abraham's inconsistent spy thriller suffers from major Raazi hangover
Romeo Akbar Walter is starkly different from Raazi in its standpoint on the cost of war. But it could have conveyed its idea with more nuance, like the latter.
castJohn Abraham, Jackie Shroff. Mouni Roy, Sikandar Kher, Raghubir Yadav, Suchitra Krishnamoorthy, Alka Amin
In terms of its design and atmospherics, Robbie Grewal's espionage thriller Romeo Akbar Walter (RAW) is very similar to Meghna Gulzar's Raazi from last year. John Abraham, like Alia Bhatt in Raazi, plays an Indian spy deployed in Pakistan who earns the faith of Pakistani big shots hatching a conspiracy against India ahead of the 1971 Indo-Pak War.
But besides the gender of its protagonist, RAW and Raazi are also dissimilar in terms of where they stand. While Raazi focused on the cost of war and empathy towards people from the other side of the Line of Control, RAW hammers home the point that interpersonal relations only make spies weaker and derail them from their path to serve their country. Given that John has starred in recent films high on nationalistic fervour, namely Parmanu: The Story Of Pokhran and Satyamev Jayate, the standpoint of RAW does not come as a surprise. But in its defense, the pitch of RAW is much lower than that of Satyamev Jayate. The idea, like Parmanu, is to only be prepared for war, and not encourage it. As Jackie Shroff's character of Research & Analysis Wing chief Srikant Rai says, "Koi bhi jung sirf ek cheez se jeeti jati hai" (Any war can only be won through just one resource) — information. With this statement, Shroff reminds all the spies of the world, doubling up as James Bonde-sque action stars, that the primary job of a spy is only to source and transmit information.
However, that does not imply that our spy Romeo Ali urf Akbar Majid urf Walter Khan will not get his fair share of action. Though he does fire a shot or two, majority of the film sees him running away from the Pakistani Army, led by Colonel Khudabaksh Khan (Sikander Kher), and enduring excruciating third-degree physical torture. He is clearly not depicted as the archetypal invincible hero. He mostly resorts to unlikely weapons in a John Abraham arsenal, like camouflaging, plotting and diplomacy. Those do not come as a surprise since he has been trained by Srikant, who does not belong to the chest-beating nationalistic breed. Jackie plays Srikant as unassumingly as the cramped and intended-to-be flattering camera angles (by Tapan Basu) and which-RAW-chief-says-that dialogues (by Ishraq Shah) allow him to. But despite the lack of able support, Jackie pulls off the role convincingly throughout the film, with major heavy-lifting in two rather silent scenes, revolving around watering a plant.
Jackie would have played a better spy had he been of the right physicality and age. John does not do a half bad job. He reacts well to the thrills but lacks the gravitas to sink his teeth completely into a layered character, that could have been so much more only if writer-director Robbie Grewal could have fleshed it out to its optimum capacity. His direction otherwise is compelling in scenes involving thrills, particularly because his filmography includes only romances and comedies like MP3: Mera Pehla Pehla Pyaar and Aloo Chaat respectively.
The story and screenplay of RAW suffer from loopholes because of the inconsistent tonality of the film. The first scene introduces the film as a dark, sinister-like take on a prisoner of war who undergoes Mossad-like torturous rounds of interrogation. Then the film briefly visits the Airlift template before diving deep into the Raazi zone. Then there are also bits of New York and Kurbaan thrown into the mix, before it ends on an Abbas-Mustan note.
But the final twist, like some major plot points, seem implausible given how heavily the film is invested in the accuracy of a procedural rather than a Tiger Zinda Hai-like spy thriller steeped in suspension of disbelief.
Production designers Swapnil Bhalerao and Madhur Madhavan, and costume designer Ameira Punvani are excellent in their respective areas. As mentioned earlier, since RAW is a rare recent John Abraham-starrer that's low on action, and stunt director Vikram Dahiya does a limited but sensible job. The editing ensures the proceedings are quick-paced but it could have been more measured to make the film look effortless.
As far as the women in the film are concerned, there are only two key roles, barring the conspicuous presence of then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Mouni Roy lets her eyes do most of the talking, since the screenplay barely allows her any dialogues. At the interval point, her character transcends the usual leading lady trope but the ensuing expectations of a meaty role fade as the film progresses, just like her consequence in a testosterone-charged spy thriller. There is also Suchitra Krishnamoorthi, returning to the big screen nine years after her last appearance in Rann. She still commands screen presence though has as many as three short scenes credited to her in the film.
Sikandar Kher is the dark horse here as he completely owns his predatory avatar. He also gets the accent faultlessly right, which makes his character all the more believable. Raghubir Yadav, as a Pakistani spy for Research & Analysis Wing brings both intrigue and emotional heft to the film. There is also a romantic track between John and Mouni imposed on the narrative for the sake of token emotions, which only serves as a distraction from the central narrative. The emotional core, besides salutation to the Indian National Flag and sacrifices for the motherland ("He chose motherland over his own mother," as Shroff puts it), also stems from John's mother (Alka Amin), who is seen spending sleepless nights, crying her eyes out in loneliness.
Needless to say, she realises the cost of war. She lost her husband in war and dies while waiting for her son's return from Pakistan. These stories deserve the spotlight more than ever before, given the tinderbox India is sitting on currently after the Pulwama attack. But RAW chooses to tell the other, more populist side of the story. Though that is completely the makers' choice, one wishes they would have not given up on nuance while translating the popular sentiment into a half-baked spy thriller.
All images from YouTube.
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