[Possible spoilers ahead; but I hear movies are all connected now, so consider this a warning for every movie ever made.]

Making shit up as you go along (the current term for it, I believe, is ‘multiverse’) is in vogue. So fourth-time helmer Lokesh Kanagaraj has made a new film titled Vikram, which draws story elements from his second feature Kaithi (2019) and carefully prepares the place for a fatter cash cow. Shot by Girish Gangadharan (Angamaly Diaries (2017), Jallikattu (2019)) in a dark but warm palette of yellows, reds and blacks, the film expands director Lokesh’s literal if not artistic arsenal to a considerable degree. Guns have gotten a bad rap in the past couple of weeks, but Vikram assures us that, sometimes, there is nothing quite like a cannon to clear some landscape.

The spirit of Christopher Nolan hangs heavily (how else would it hang?) over the film right from its cold open: masked men storm a high-rise, kill a middle-aged man tied to a chair, and record the event on video with the message “This is not a murder; it’s a statement. We are at war against your system.” The killings repeat every week under the same signature, prompting the police to hire a sleeper unit headed by Amar (Fahadh Fasil) to investigate the matter. In the sophisticated narrative setup, Amar discovers that the middle-aged man was Karnan (Kamal Haasan), who is somewhat of a jerk but one with a streak of kindly righteousness. He also learns that Karnan, and the other murdered cops, are involved in the capture of a large consignment of drugs belonging to Sandhanam (Vijay Sethupathi), who thus has an incentive to trace the masked marauders as well.

The trailer for Vikram enticed viewers with the prospect of seeing three major stars of South Indian cinema come together for the first time (along with a distended cameo by Suriya). Indeed, each pair of the film’s three heroes gets a scene together, and they all meet in the climactic sequence. They are all introduced within the first thirty minutes of the film (cf. Aayitha Ezhuthu (2004), where all three stars appear in the first minute), Fahadh following Kamal’s relatively low-key (and ill-advised) entry in the first few minutes. However, we hear Kamal properly only after ninety minutes into the film, his silence helping to sustaining an enigmatic if uncompromised aura around him, and this resurgence, built on a bit of audience-cheating, helps the film shift gears and transition from a mystery to a thriller.

Most visibly, Vikram is a love story between Fahadh’s Amar and Kamal’s Karnan-turned-Vikram, and I wish the film had run with this through line. Amar spends the first hour courting the older man — literally following his footsteps — as a phantom pursuing another; only the masked can unmask the masked, remarks his superior. His Citizen Kane-like investigation builds up the mystique around Karnan/Vikram, whom he imagines inhabiting in the same space as him, a daydreaming paramour. In the end, he even plays midwife to the baby his senior has been nursing. Climbing up and down walls and breaking into houses, Amar is the true heir to the original spy of Vikram (1986). He is veritably Karnan/Vikram’s body double and the film seals this substitution with explicit linkages in costume, makeup and editing.

So far so good. But Vikram’s most flagrant shortcoming is that, unlike Lokesh’s previous feature Master, it does not give the devil its due. The devil here goes by the name of Sandhanam and it has the likeness of Vijay Sethupathi, whose entry is one of the film’s visual highs: emerging like a newborn from an upturned autorickshaw, this bloody, bulky baby executes a neat flip and lands on its feet. Casting off its shirt, it puts on a pair of shades and wraps its hands behind, close to the body. While everyone else in the film is rough and tough, Sandhanam’s brand is soft and pudgy; and Vijay Sethupathi’s dad bod, already on exhibition in Master, speaks harsh truth to the power of his colleagues’ chiselled abdomens. This faux-modest entry perfectly encapsulates the double-coded style of this actor who excels at projecting aggression when he is insecure and vulnerability when in control.

The character, alas, goes unwaveringly downhill from here. Over a debriefing, we learn that the trigamist Sandhanam lives with his extended family of 67 in a Chettinad-style old-world mansion in whose ample basement he runs his drug racket while fronting as a medico. It’s an emphatic parody of The Godfather, with women and kids with broken legs flitting about the house in an orchestrated frenzy rivalling that of the cocaine cooks downstairs. Organized crime? Try organizing a family. But the whirlwind montage insistently glides over this giddy microcosm, just as the film swaps character detail for tics and trappings. Decked up in flamboyant stripes, Vijay Sethupathi is given two golden incisors to broadcast his voice through, which makes him sound like Simbu imitating MGR.

Kamal, Fahadh and Sethupathi are all excellent comic performers, and it must have taken some perversity in imagining them in a largely grim crime saga. The cult of personality that Master gave in to came with the silver lining of offering two actors the space and scope to register as real individuals. Vijay had a great deal of latitude to perfect his poker-faced humour while Sethupathi came out as a champion of the anti-climactic line reading. There’s very little life at the cold core of Vikram, where, in the vein of Nolan, actors are turned into pawns on a chessboard. Whatever warmth exists is to be found at the narrative periphery: at a cut-rate wedding with cheap booze and ordered-in food, presided by a computer network, or in the beatific voice of a female doctor straight out of a Mani Ratnam movie. Save for a handful of tiring references to Kamal’s older films and his political career, the stars don’t stick out the way Vijay did in Master.

The most significant loss in this ironing down is Kamal the person, who is barely to be found in the film. Echoing like a ghost in a shell, his gravel voice possesses a materiality that the body lacks. He is chewing on some item for half-a-shot and one time he drags a line of coke across his teeth, but there is very little of the actorly business with which he generally holds the frame, none of the vocal nimbleness of Uttama Villain (2015). He gets maybe 40 minutes of screen time in all, most of it in the second half. A brief moment finds him in an endearing dialogue with an infant, in an affected slang that he slips in and out of, but the film is more interested in showcasing the 67-year-old operating an assortment of phallic firearms. One shot has Kamal play golf with his left hand, whose meaning, I’m sure, will be explained in Lokesh’s seventeenth film.

The action sequences are illustrative in that sense. Chopped up into too many shots, these passages of hand-to-hand combat and gunplay are vehement in their refusal to show actors in continuous action; there is not much to differentiate the stars from each other in terms of their combat style. In my memory, the only graceful skirmish in the film has longer shots and features none of the three heroes. There is enough here for connoisseurs of kink — chains, leather gloves, masks, handcuffs and bikes — but little of the eroticism associated with athletic bodies performing real stunts. The fight between Vikram and Sandhanam is a wonky green-screen monster, while another involves the camera zooming in and out to general embarrassment. The cleverest clash features Vikram shooting his way to a milk bottle inside his home — a marriage of the hard and the soft that the film needed more of — but it comes on the heels of two other fisticuffs, rendering it a somewhat tedious addendum.

Part of the problem appears to be that Vikram, already 173 minutes long, works with too much material. Scattered across half a dozen prominent locations, the film is forced to proceed in leaps and bounds, with characters appearing and disappearing in the blink of an eye. Director Lokesh’s predilection for cross-cutting is now well-known, but it becomes the primary figure of style here. In contrast to Master, there are few fleshed-out scenes, the accelerated editing pattern washing along otherwise incompatible dramatic incidents scattered across time and space. The resultant soup is powered by Anirudh’s thundering mock-Hans Zimmer score that does most of the heavy lifting, at times substituting for the work of the director.

As an artist, Lokesh Kanagaraj is unassuming and he doesn’t share his peers’ taste for activism through cinema. Despite the sociological interest of the crimes his films deal with — drug trade, juvenile delinquency, police corruption — his thinking is not systemic and these issues remain dramaturgical abstractions. If there is a philosophy to be gleaned from his films, it’s that guns rock, and bigger guns rock more. That may a defensible outlook for a director, but the creeping impression of cynicism about filmmaking that I had with Kaithi — that he is increasingly invested in pushing our pleasure buttons than his own — has just gotten more ammo with Vikram.

[Possible spoilers ahead]

With his debut film, Maanagaram, writer-director Lokesh Kanagaraj staked his claim as an adept craftsman, but also showed the promise of a vision at work. In the film’s complex narrative tapestry, several outsider characters influence each other’s lives in anonymity, collectively enacting the mechanisms of the metropolis, here a visually denuded Chennai. At work was the kind of untouched idealism typical of debut works. His sophomore film, Kaithi (“prisoner”), while not without echoes of the talent that made Maanagaram, inducts the filmmaker into the commercial cynicism of the industry and assures him the passage to bigger, dumber projects.

Bejoy (Naren) heads a special unit of the police that has just seized a massive consignment of heroin. He stocks the captured cargo in the secret basement of the police commissioner’s office. A corrupt cop in the forensic department passes this information to the drug lord, who not only wants the payload back, but also the heads of the five cops who seized it. Bejoy meanwhile is at the Inspector General’s office eighty kilometres away for the IG’s big retirement bash. The drug lord manages to spike the alcohol at the gathering, causing every officer except Bejoy to collapse into a fit. Bejoy, with his fractured right hand, finds himself with forty dying officers and no one to help him transport them to the hospital. No one except Dilli (Karthi), a just-released lifer who was picked up on a whim by an officer before the party. Bejoy threatens Dilli into driving the truckload of unconscious cops to a hospital and then to the commissioner’s office, which is deserted except for Napoleon (George Maryan), a low-level cop who just reported for duty, and a group of college students retained for a petty crime.

This premise soon resolves into two discrete narrative threads that Kangaraj shuttles between, much like in his first film. In the first, Dilli and Bejoy drive in a lorry to the commissioner’s office while the drug cartel attempts to intercept the vehicle and kill the unconscious cops on it. In the second, a horde of the cartel’s henchmen tries to break into the commissioner’s office, as Napoleon and the students seal the premises. And there are minor interludes weaving in and out of these two threads: Dilli’s estranged daughter who tries to call him from an orphanage, the drug lords tracking the lorry through a mole hiding in it and the corrupt cop seeking to sniff out a police mole in the drug cartel. These five threads are connected within the film through phone calls of nearly every possible permutation, with each party informing, instructing, encouraging, each other and influencing each other’s spaces via telephone.

Like Maanagaram, Kaithi unfolds over a single night; in the first shot, the camera glides down from a clockface showing 8pm. Kanagaraj is so committed to the concept, which for him is as much a visual device, that he advances an event that should logically take place the following morning: Dilli meets his daughter, rather implausibly, right after a climactic bloodbath, in the darkness amid flashing red-blue lights of the police sirens. The camera work is similarly muscular, following characters from up close; there’s a nice, long shot of Karthi walking in his typically relaxed fashion, with the camera accompanying him as he walks from the lorry, traverses the poolside and goes to the buffet table. The visual texture, dominated by the yellow of headlights and streetlamps, is rather familiar, the dialogue is downright poor, and it’s in the delirious crosscutting that the film generates its entire thrill. Kanagaraj obviously loves to cut between sequences, so much so that he nests one parallel editing scheme within another: Napoleon’s defence manoeuvres inside the building are spliced with the students’ measures to seal entry points and the frenetic attempts of the gang trying to break in—a pattern that is itself couched within the larger, five-thread cycle.

Gripping as it is by its sheer mechanical force, does the parallel editing really work as it did so well in Maanagaram? It doesn’t, and for a number of reasons. Firstly, because the major narrative thread is dramatically flat. Dilli’s road trip with Bejoy is thwarted thrice by gangs trying to kill them. The excitement of this conflict vanishes right in the first instance, where Dilli is revealed to be a superhero capable to bringing down scores of men without trouble. Given this aspect, it is evident that the lorry will reach its destination against all odds. The fight scenes are confusingly edited to the point that we are unclear about what’s happening: a CG-shot cutting through three vehicles one behind the other sets up the peak moment of a fight, but what exactly follows is confusing in its spatial relations. A while later, the lorry is trapped on the hilltop with the henchmen surrounding the hill at the bottom (intertwined with the gang at the commissioner’s premise trying to get to the jail on top of the building). Dilli works out an escape, but again, it’s not clear what exactly he accomplishes.

Secondly, because the timelines are incompatible. Dilli’s transit takes a much longer time, especially with all the battles on way, than what Napoleon and the students have to defend the commissioner’s office. This long transit, as a result, dilutes the tight action of the second thread, which comes across as improbably protracted. Finally, because Kanagaraj diffuses the tension just as it hits a crescendo with a quiet passage: as the commissioner’s office is on the verge of recapitulation, we cut to Dilli reminiscing in a long, close-up about his past. It’s an unconvincing back story shoehorned to provide a showcase to Karthi’s acting prowess and to soften the hero. To be sure, it could’ve had no place earlier in the film, dedicated as the narrative is to cultivating a mystique to Dilli, but at this late point in the film, it stops the action dead in its tracks.

When the threads actually merge, one wishes they hadn’t. For, after Dilli reaches the commissioner’s office to save Napoleon and the students, the film devolves fully into a fascist aesthetic. Dilli uses a machine gun to take down the invading horde of drug traders (shorthand, of course, for anyone who is anti-cop, anti-law and order), who now fall like flies just like the poisoned cops of the opening passage. Shot with a borrowed seductiveness of flashing barrels and bullets falling down in slow-motion, the sequence is narratively, visually and conceptually gratuitous. It’s also cynical, as is the film’s tacked-on coda making claims for a sequel, because it gives in to a crowd-pleasing formula, pandering to a desire for violence and reserving berth for Kanagaraj’s transition to high budget moviemaking (he’s already roped in for the next Vijay vehicle).

There are, on the other hand, remnants of the imagination that made Maanagaram a success: the fairly tight narration without songs or flashbacks, drone shots of the lorry cruising the highway, the idea of a convict driving a truckload of switched-off cops, shots of the gangsters with white flashlights in the dark, a fight sequence in the commissioner’s office with papers on the floor cut to an intoxicating Ilayaraja number. The ironic beats are also present in the story elements. The police have collectively failed, corrupt or knocked out as they are after a night of revelry, and the only active cop is manipulative and virtually castrated. The brunt of their negligence falls on the innocent. The day is saved by a convict on the first day of his release and a constable before his first duty day.

Karthi, an intelligent actor who usually manages to convey a rich inner life beyond the script, is costumed like a religious man: a beard, a talisman on his ankle, holy ash on his forehead, a plain brown shirt, a lungi in which he conceals a smartphone, but also an iconic handcuff hanging from his right ankle. He eats and fights like a man possessed. After he’s finished his bucket-load of rice, he looks up and taps his thigh a couple of times before washing his hand in a pool. Karthi’s lazy gait and drawl projects a man who’s in control of the situation, but except for his two sentimental closeups, the actor doesn’t really seem committed to the role. Just look at him pretending to pour alcohol on the stab would on his back. Unlike Maanagaram, Kaithi is a closed film, satisfied with the pleasures of the genre. The plot revolves around drugs, a purely cinematic social issue of no real bearing—a choice indicative not as much as of a lack of seriousness as of the filmmaker’s sights on the big time.