The films in the “Dhoom” series, Bollywood’s most successful action-adventure franchise, have always been more about the swashbuckling glamour of the daredevil villains than about the stiff, humorless, honor-bound cops who chase them. Staunch Abhishek Bachchan’s assistant police commissioner Jai Dixit, a grimly purposeful law-and-order crusader, was doomed to be overshadowed by guest bad guys like “Krrish” heartthrob Hrithek Roshan, who did the honors in “Dhoom: 2” (2006). This is more the case than ever in the latest installment, “Dhoom: 3,” which is dominated completely by charismatic superstar Aamir Khan, who digs into the bruised psyche of his character, Sahir Iqbal, a revenge-seeking master circus artist who uses stage tricks to pull off a series of seemingly impossible bank robberies. Khan makes the character so compelling that we wait impatiently through the obligatory chase sequences and macho showdowns in order to get back to Sahir in his gaudy backstage lair.
In this almost three-hour blockbuster, the repetitive motorcycle chases had this reviewer checking his watch. Lavishly produced and at times gorgeously gaudy, directed with real flair by the writer of the first two “Dhoom” films, Vijay Krishna Acharya, “Dhoom: 3” is already well on its way to making box office history in India, where it’s playing on 4,000 screens. Advance ticket sales have reportedly set new records, and analysts are predicting a first-week gross upwards of $30 million. The film is on 700 additional screens outside India, 236 of them in North America, a record for a Bollywood release. A version dubbed in the South Indian Tamil language is on 10 screens, another first.
The top Bollywood production company Yash Raj Films launched the “Dhoom” series in 2004, as a clear attempt to produce a global (i.e. Hollywood-style) blockbuster. The project has been remarkably successful, perhaps in part because the long Indian tradition of a “cinema of attractions,” favoring a grab-bag of elements from several genres, fits the anything-goes international action format like a glove. Originality was never part of the plan. The first “Dhoom” was a “Fast and the Furious”-meets-“Point Break” romp in which a crew of motorcycle racers, led by dashing hunk John Abraham, made their getaways on jazzy bikes through bumper-to-bumper Mumbai traffic. In “Dhoom: 2,” hot-dancing Roshan was a daredevil cat burglar who teamed up with slinky Aishwarya Rai for a series of high-wire “Mission: Impossible”-style heists.
The obvious titan looming over “Dhoom: 3” is Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” both for its Chicago locations (many of the same ones) and for its repeated references to clown makeup and to Sahir as a “jester.” This film doesn’t come anywhere close to Nolan’s in terms of diabolical grandeur, although the pain of Sahir’s motivation is surprisingly vivid, thanks to Khan’s performance. It should also be noted that the acrobatic magic act Sahir produces and stars in at a Windy City theater, the Great Indian Circus, clearly owes something to another Nolan film, “The Prestige” (2006), in which Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman played 19th-century stage magicians locked in a fierce rivalry. Here, the source of conflict is internal, and it remains carefully hidden until the intermission.
In spite of “Dhoom: 2’s” explosive action fireworks, the scene that people remember most vividly from that film is a dazzling introductory production number, “Dhoom Again,” stomp-danced on a steam-wreathed factory floor by the rubber-limbed Roshan, in a style that could be described as “power tap.” A similar triumph of upstaging occurs this time, as the almost 50-year-old, considerably beefed-up Khan (“Lagaan,” “3 Idiots”), along with his leggy Amazon of a co-star, Katrina Kaif, shows off impressive athleticism and obvious glamour in a series of high-flying acrobatic performance pieces, as spangly in glistening digital images as Cirque du Soleil.
At their best, the lush yet punchy musical numbers that Acharya stages for “Dhoom: 3” reach giddy heights of pop romanticism. The composer, the shameless pop button-pusher Pritam, swoops through the emotional turmoil of a song like “Malang,” and Acharya’s camera seems to be dancing — and swooning — along with the performers. Cynics need not apply.