Without a lot of new mainstream releases stepping up to the plate this past weekend, there was room for a surprise hit. Enter “Pathaan,” an action movie from India that racked up nearly $6 million at the domestic box office despite playing on fewer than 700 screens. My guess is that many theater owners are going to look at the film’s over-$8,000-per-screen average and decide that they want a piece of that action. So even if “Pathaan” isn’t playing in your market already, it may be coming soon.
Shah Rukh Khan stars as Pathaan, one of the greatest secret agents in all of India. He has recently resurfaced after being missing for two years. The first half of the film is largely devoted to what happened before he went missing, and frankly the flashback goes on so long that it’s easy to forget that it’s even a flashback. Two years ago, Pathaan was on a mission to stop a terrorist named Jim (John Abraham), himself given flashbacks to explain his motivation. While on the mission, Pathaan met up with Rubai (Deepika Padukone), an agent from a rival agency that also saw the threat that Jim presented. A few flip-flops later, and Pathaan found himself in a Russian prison and disavowed by India. Fortunately, he had a brother named Tiger (Salman Khan) from another arm of the apparently-very-popular YRF Spy Universe to help bust him out and disappear for two years.
Now Rubai has been conspicuously seen on a security camera in Paris. If she’s back, then so is Pathaan. The joint resurfacing means that Jim’s three-year (yes, three-year) plan is close to fruition, and the whole world is in danger, especially India. Fortunately, they’ve got an agent the caliber of Pathaan on the case, but is he back at full capacity? A shootout, chase, and daring helicopter escape in the hideout of a weapons dealer indicates that yes, he is.
The story of “Pathaan” is nothing special, the sort of thing you’d see in a typical James Bond or “Mission: Impossible” movie (critics have pointed out that the virus-heavy plot strongly resembles the second film in the latter franchise). But the headline here isn’t the just-okay spy movie that the movie is on paper, it’s the blockbuster you’ll get if you see the movie in theaters. So much of this movie is a feast for the eyes and ears. For the eyes, you’ve got the aforementioned hideout sequence, an abduction sequence involving trucks and helicopters, a heist sequence with a precarious helicopter-assisted landing, an ill-fated train transfer, and plenty of other inventive goodies. And that’s nothing compared to what your ears will get. This movie loves its gunshots and explosions, and the music is exciting and catchy. When I say “the music,” I don’t just mean the score (though the score is most definitely included), I’m talking about two intoxicating musical numbers, one right in the middle of the film. Let’s see Tom Cruise try that. He might, he was in “Rock of Ages,” but I seriously doubt that even he’s fearless enough to interrupt an action movie like that. As for the one at the end, when was the last time you saw James Bond save the world then sing his own theme song to celebrate?
“Pathaan” is sure to lead to an increased presence of Indian action movies on the global stage, especially from this YRF Spy Universe. I’m looking forward to seeing more of them, as apparently they’re hard at work thinking up ways to top the craziness of this movie. The scripts could stand to be tighter, but otherwise they should keep up the good work. Don’t be thrown by the subtitles and cultural differences, the action and beauty of “Pathaan” make for a party in any language.
“Pathaan” is not rated by the MPAA, but it would be approximately a PG-13 (bordering on R at times) for violence. Its running time is 146 minutes.
Robert R. Garver is a graduate of the Cinema Studies program at New York University. His weekly movie reviews have been published since 2006.