The same basic story of a heist betrayed from within completes its tour of the globe with Sanjay Gupta’s “Kaante,” the Bollywood reinterpretation of Quentin Tarantino’s 1992 “Reservoir Dogs,” itself a reinterpretation of Ringo Lam’s 1987 “City on Fire,” set in Hong Kong. Delayed many times from its original release date of June 7, the much-hyped big-budgeter finally went out worldwide Friday in some 800 prints, 25% of them overseas — and it’s largely worth the wait. Strongly cast with a raft of characterful Bollywood actors, and flawed mostly by curious color grading, “Kaante” is an involving, often kinetic 2½-hour ride for auds who can accept their entertainment overboiled as well as just hardboiled.
Though billed as the first Bollywood production shot entirely in Los Angeles, the musical numbers were in fact lensed in India. And though the story is L.A. set, the movie as a whole is not a whit less Bollywood than other productions shot in the U.K. or continental Europe.
Film’s first weekend in India was brawny. But after going a third over budget, for a final tab of 400 million rupees ($8.3 million) — huge by Mumbai standards — it will need a much broader acceptance by Indian auds than male-oriented crimers usually receive in order to recoup its outlay. Pic’s song album, released back in July, is already old news, and teasers and trailers have been running in all Indian media for months.
Though the film, especially in its second half, rehashes scenes familiar from “Dogs” (with different dialogue), it also refers back to “City” and other genre classics such as “The Usual Suspects.” More importantly, it adds a substantial amount of new material and has a general look and zeitgeist that’s pure Bollywood: There’s none of Tarantino’s stylized, slightly Runyon-esque wordplay here. Genre buffs — and fans of Asian cinema — will get a charge out of the reinterpretation factor alone.
Story is told in flashback by one of the gang, Maqbool “Mak” Haider (songwriter-turned-actor Lucky Ali), who recalls the group’s first meeting in an L.A. police station on May 12, 2000. Hauled in separately as suspects in a security-van robbery, the six Indians feel racially victimized in a way that Italian Mafiosi and Chinese triads never are.
This theme runs through the picture like a nationalistic clarion call, including one jolting sequence in which the gang dispatches an arms dealer who sold weapons to Kashmiri rebels back home. There’s also a considerable amount of linguistic comedy that relies on both Americans and the Hindi speakers not understanding each others’ languages.
Further flashbacks, some late in the movie, fill in most of the characters’ backgrounds. Yashvardhan “Major” Rampal (vet superstar Amitabh Bachchan) is a former gangster who tried to go straight and has a dying wife at home; Jay “Ajju” Rehan (Sanjay Dutt) is a hardened crim who actually committed the robbery they’re all accused of; a failed nightclub bouncer, Marc Issak (Sunil Shetty) is disastrously in love with the joint’s star performer, Lisa (Malaika Arora); Anand “Andy” Mathur (Kumar Gaurav) is a penniless software expert shut out by his ex-wife, Renu (Namrata Gujral-Cooper); and Raj “Bali” Yadav (screen newcomer Mahesh Manjrekar) is a stuttering, coke-dealing psycho with a retarded younger sister. Bali first met Mak when escaping from a deal gone wrong.
During their “Usual Suspects”-like meeting in custody — in which the interrogating cop, in a further film-buff reference, is called McQuarrie — Ajju proposes robbing a lightly guarded bank used by the police for their payroll. After planning sessions held on the roof of a hotel, and the robbery itself (briefly but acrobatically staged), the intermission comes as they triumphantly leave the bank.
Part Two literally starts with a bang — several, actually — in a bullet ballet that’s pure Asian action cinema, unbelievable in real terms. As the characters reconvene in a warehouse to divvy up the cash, Bali gets the idea that one of them is an informer, and they progressively start to turn on each other.
From the protags’ initial meeting, heavy on closeups, Gupta directs the film primarily as a character piece, with Bachchan, Dutt and semi-comic relief Manjrekar driving the drama with richly characterized roles. Shetty, a tightly wound actor at the best of times, strikes few sparks as the nightclub bouncer, and his scenes with Arora as the chanteuse (a role originally cast with Lisa Ray) are flat. Rest of the cast is OK but lower-key.
Aside from one song by the group before the robbery, and several others over montages, the musical numbers are largely sexy interludes with Arora and her fellow pole-dancers in the nightclub, cut like musicvideos rather than relying on mass choreography. Song score, mostly by Anand Raaj Anand, is typically hard-driven but more rhythmic than melodically memorable.
Gregor Narholz’s background score is atmospheric and attentive. However, other tech credits are only OK by current Bollywood standards. Strangest element is the color grading, which often shifts radically within sequences and, in L.A. exteriors, is bathed in various degrees of yellow, recalling segs of Michael Bay’s “Bad Boys.” Print caught also had a gray strip running down the right-hand side of the screen during the post-intermission reel.