The recent Agneepath and Don films have both shown how successful a remake can be, but let us remember that these were remakes of much loved classics. Agent Vinod, on the other hand, is a little known spy thriller made in 1977 with neither recognisable actors nor memorable songs. If director Sriram Raghavan's, Saif Ali Khan-produced Agent Vinod is to prove a success, it will have to do so on the strength of its own laurels.
Through the action-packed film, we follow RAW agent Vinod (Saif Ali Khan) as he pursues the mystery of a material or weapon known only as ‘242’. In pursuit of this, Agent Vinod runs into villains, then worse villains, and then even worse villains, whilst working on and off with Pakistani spy Dr Iram Bilal (Kareena Kapoor). We’re never sure if she's working with Vinod or against him. Saying any more than this may ruin it for the reader. There’s a good reason why the poor trailer gives us hardly any details about the film.
Though noticeably inspired by Jason Bourne, Jack Bauer and James Bond, the film also serves as an homage to the old Indian spy thrillers of the 70s like Karz and Don. Unfortunately, this works against the film as a whole, not knowing whether it wants to be tongue-in-cheek, or a more intellectual film. The balance comes across quite uneven, with the first half feeling more like a Roger Moore 007 film, and the second half more like a recent Daniel Craig outing.
Saif Ali Khan does the action and drama very well, but the limited material we know about Vinod’s character does not give us much to empathise with. There is no personal resonance that he has with the mission he pursues. The death of his colleague, which pushes him into action, doesn’t feel like it has much of an effect on him, and the relationship he builds with Dr Bilal lacks any kind of chemistry. Dr Bilal on the other hand, holds a slight back story, which evokes some sympathy. It’s just unfortunate that Vinod doesn’t get the same courtesy. The climax in particular takes away any good feelings we have towards the hero. It makes you wonder what the writer was thinking.
There are some great experimental scenes that the director plays with, juxtaposing action with obscure or unexpected musical scores. This is especially well done for a shootout scene in a Latvian restaurant, shot in slow-motion to the soft score of Rabta. However, there are times when these juxtapositions are not so successful, such as a fight scene overlapped with Charlie Chaplin, and the regular appearance of old Indian spy music – which could have been included as an homage to the original Agent Vinod film, but didn’t really fit into the scenes. At times like these, it felt less of an homage and more of a spoof.
There is no denying that the action and set pieces are highly impressive, but unfortunately the story that pushes this action forward comes across very episodic and often implausible – why a murderous killer will allow his kidnapped victim to pick up his glasses from the floor before being dragged onto a helicopter, I just don’t know.
Hopping all around the world, the visuals are also undeniably stunning, but this doesn’t conceal the idiocy of the plot. Looking at it geographically, you find yourself wondering “Why are these villains making life so hard for themselves?” Probably so that the director has a good reason to get some amazing shots of Moscow, Riga, Marrakech and Cape Town. There’s also some character-based idiocy too, with Vinod continuing to trust femme fatale Dr Bilal, despite her duping him over and over again. Kareena’s pretty, but she’s not that pretty.
With a film based on terrorism and involving Muslim characters, it is refreshing to see the director steer clear of stereotypes – Dr Bilal wears short dresses and drinks alcohol, there’s hardly a beard in sight (Gulshan Grover’s is well-trimmed), and few self-worthy monologues. Even the developing inter-faith relationship between Iram and Vinod, which may raise a frown amongst the audience, is of no concern to the filmmaker. No rants, no high horses. It’s good to see Indian cinema taking this as the norm, and full credit is due to Sriram Raghavan for this.
Saif Ali Khan has already expressed his interest in continuing his role as Agent Vinod as part of a franchise, and with a gap in the Indian market for a spy series, it’s not a bad idea, with this first film showing great promise for further slick set-pieces and exotic locations. However, a lot more pre-development work on the script would not go amiss. The characters were too simple and the plot too complex. By giving the characters more depth and making the story easier to follow, a franchise could be a winner.