Much less crude than its pummeling trailers suggest, the fast-paced Bollywood gangster film “Bullett Raja” is, for most of its length, a tight, clever, blithely amoral crime drama about a buddy pair of hit men rising to the top of the mob heap in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. The film comes apart in the middle, during a long, messy section in which even the gunfights feel like padding, but the introduction of a promising new Hindi action star in the final reel almost makes that worthwhile. Released on some 3,500 screens worldwide (including more than 100 in North America), this heavily hyped Fox Star Studios production earned a disappointing $1.1 million in its first day of business.
The film’s winsome antiheroes get into the crime business almost on a whim. Jobless and trouble-prone Raja (Saif Ali Khan) crashes a wedding in order to hide from a pack of angry thugs, and bonds with one of the guests, bored postal messenger Rudra (Jimmy Shergill). When the event erupts into an intra-family gunfight, Raja and Rudra impulsively grab weapons and wade in on the side of their host, perforating a half-dozen complete strangers apiece without a qualm.
As the accidental gangsters, Khan and Shergill have great charm and expert comic timing. And flirtatious leading lady Sonakshi Sinha (“Dabangg”) can render men speechless with a glance. But these warm comedic performances feel out of place in a film whose view of crime is actually rather grim. The criminals in “Bullett Raja” are not lovable slapstick oafs like the ones Sanjay Dutt plays in the Munna Bhai series; they are more likely to be enthroned in the middle of a poppy field (an amazing sight), handing out killing orders to shark-eyed henchmen. There could be real terror in the prospect of the movie’s babes-in-the-woods getting ground up by a criminal machine, but the danger never feels real.
If it were more consistent, “Bullett Raja” would qualify as a solid piece of genre craftsmanship for director and co-writer Tigmanshu Dhulia (“Saheb Biwi Aur Gangster”), with action scenes that are crisply framed and edited for clarity. But once Raja and Rudra are well established, they become the targets of envious rivals, and a big chunk of the movie (roughly the middle third) devolves into an incoherent series of ambushes and reprisals.
Things get interesting again during the movie’s satisfying final act, an almost self-contained section in which Raja deals cleverly with an elaborate ambush scheme. It’s Raja’s new buddy in this section, however, who makes the movie’s strongest impression: handsome and charismatic model-turned-actor Vidyut Jamwal (“Commando”), whose high-kicking martial-arts skills are authentic and impressive. There is no indication here that Jamwal can act; nor is he required to. But as ACP Rana Pratap Singh, an upright police officer who begins as Raja’s nemesis and becomes a comrade-in-arms, he cuts a dashing figure and convincingly ties bad guys into odd shapes like balloon animals.
If he plays his cards right, Jamwal could be something new for modern Bollywood: a two-fisted leading man who isn’t just a ripped gym rat striking poses.