The longest film I ever reviewed was “La Belle Noiseuse, The Beautiful Troublemaker,” a near real-time Swiss drama about a famous painter whose creative energy returns when he meets the beautiful girlfriend of a young protege. It plays out in a painterly real-time — sketching to drawing to shaping and then painting a finished portrait.
Four hours of watching paint dry is the short review, although it was interesting — up to a point — and featured a beautiful nude in most of its scenes. It’s the movie that made me figure “Maybe the New York Film Festival isn’t my best value as traveling film critic.”
The second through tenth longest films I’ve reviewed are all Indian, starting with #2, “Lagaan,” an epic about an interminable (3:44 running time) 19th century cricket match in which the locals show those British imperialists a thing or two on the cricket grounds, a blow struck for equality 70 or so years before Gandhi and his movement achieved it.
I say that as a preamble to reviewing “RRR,” the popular and gonzo Indian action pic that Netflix has unleashed upon the world. It’s over three hours long, which in itself is no criticism, as that’s a hallmark of Indian cinema in general and films with Bollywood touches (song and dance numbers, including one sung mid-public-flogging) in particular.
Inside or outside of the culture, the excesses are part of the fun, and writer-director S.S. Rajamouli pulls out all the stops on this pipe organ opera of revenge, revolution and ridding India of its racist imperialist oppressors (the Brits).
Wirework stunts, big explosions, scenes stuffed with a sea of extras, “bullet-time” effects adding to the over-the-top feel of the piece, topped by a menagerie of Indian animals CGI’d into the frame.
That’s all in service of a tale of kidnapping and murder, rescue and revenge in the 1920s Raj. It’s a classic quest, with two competing super-cut/supermen, played by N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan, brawling and teaming up, enduring horrors and serving justice to scores upon scores of scornful Brits and their armed and uniformed Indian underlings.
The hook? The two unkillable fighters are from opposite sides, with only one of them realizing their competing agendas. Clever.
But the fourth “R” in this title might have been “repetitive,” as this popcorn-or-its-Indian-equivalent action picture runs out of gas an hour before it runs out of movie.
The biggest set-piece among the score or so of them here creates a climax that proves un-toppable. And yet, “RRR” persists. On and on it goes, giving us backstory, making us think this combatant or that one is dead when they aren’t, finding new ways to slaughter His Majesty’s hapless pith-helmeted minions, all of it to free a stolen child (Twinkle Sharma) and avenge earlier deaths.
All of this fictional mayhem is somewhat pointless, except as “wish fulfillment fantasy,” as we know how India really won its independence and became a non-violent revolution example to the world. Gandhi’s ashes must be rolling over in his Ganges grave (one of several places his remains were scattered).
Malli (Sharma), a child of the Gond people, enchants some imperious Brits with her singing and henna tattooing during an official visit. The wife (Alison Doody, imagine the tough time she had in school) purrs to her governor/husband (Ray Stevenson) that she wants to have this little girl “on our mantel piece.”
Coins are dropped, a language barrier exploited, and next thing we know, the child is stuffed into a car, the frantic mother murdered when she protests and one of the kid’s “brothers,” Bheem (Rao) is tracking her, plotting her escape and an apt punishment for the governor who stole her.
It is a time of unrest, one of many in India during its long occupation, and a riot has broken out near an Army post. One agitator, clad in red, seems responsible for an escalation. Only one soldier, Ram (Ram Charan) has the guts to vault the fence, leap into the crowd and literally pummel his way to the man and thrash his way through the teeming thousands to take him into custody.
It’s not overstating the case to say that director Rajamouli — he did the “Baahubali” films — stages one of the epic fights in cinema history with this scene. You think Ram is overwhelmed, think he’s down and maybe even dead, time and again, and up he pops, Superman with a stick, clubbing his way to safety, his man in custody.
But racism means you can’t acknowledge real history, or the deeds of an “inferior” race come promotion time. Ram is passed-over. Given another chance at advancement, he takes on the next job, infiltrating resistance ranks (his mustache transforms into a beard), identifying and arresting this Gond man (Bheem, who disguises himself as Muslim) who is supposedly “hunting” the governor in search of “the missing lamb,” his sister.
Another set piece lays out just how tough that mission will be. Bheem serves as bait, first for a wolf, then for the tiger he and his brothers trap for sale to get them closer to their real quarry, the governor who stole their sister. Bheem outmuscles the (digital) tiger, because he’s Superman in a loincloth.
A random accident brings the hunter and the hunter-of-the-hunter together. A child is endangered by a train crash, and all it takes is a distant wave between supermen for them to team up on a crazy, Bugs Bunny Physics blazing river rescue.
There are chortles and laughs at the sheer excess of it all, the nutty combinations of stunts, wirework effects and digital touch-ups that make this or that brawl/chase/escape/shoot-out bigger than most anything you’ve seen before.
And there are unintended snickers at the overtly homoerotic (to Western eyes) bond between these two Bollywood beefcakes, grinning and romping through a dance-off with some smartarsed “wanker” Brit who thinks “brown rubbish” can’t dance. A lesson must be taught.
And that sympathetic Englishwoman (Olivia Morris) whose attention might make their hunt for the child easier? Let’s stalk her, sabotage her motorcar and see where that takes us.
It’s all in good, violent fun until it gets to be too much and you realize they’re never going to top their big two-hour-mark throwdown.
That’s when you start to notice that all the dialogue sounds looped and a lot of what we’re seeing is just a reprise of what we’ve seen before, and much of the narrative is just folding back into what we already know or that we don’t need to know as the characters seem perfectly well motivated already.
The performances are good to passable, with the Brits reduced to harrumping stereotypes and the Indians righteous or just misguided or perhaps biding their time.
But it’s the brawls that sell “RRR.” And it’s only when they start to repeat themselves that you realize it’s time to check out, because really, enough is enough.
Rating: TV-MA, a bloody lot of bloody violence
Cast: N.T. Rama Rao Jr., Ram Charan, Alia Bhatt, Ray Stevenson,
Alison Doody, Olivia Morris and Twinkle Sharma
Credits: Scripted and directed by S.S. Rajamouli. A Netflix release.
Running time: 3:07