Like personality in domesticated animals, originality goes a long way in genre cinema, and Deepa Mehta’s “Beeba Boys” deserves recognition for being the first hyperviolent, Tarantino-inspired comedy to take place entirely within the Canadian Sikh criminal underworld. But as intriguing as it is to see the respected arthouse auteur cut loose with this deliriously unserious, highly stylized gangland blowout, the tone never quite gels, leaving the film an eye-catching but weightless mishmash of hit-and-miss one-liners and bloody yet non-visceral firefights. The premise and cultural specificity will surely draw some attention — Sikhs hardly ever get to see themselves in Western cinema at all, much less cast as sexy, snappily dressed criminal supermen — but niche business likely beckons.
Like an Indo-Canadian Nicky Barnes, kingpin Jeet Johar (Bollywood star Randeep Hooda) has no interest in doing his dirty business quietly. Controlling a considerable chunk of the drug trade in modern-day Vancouver, Jeet is the unquestioned leader of a tight-knit group of henchmen, who dress in expensive, brightly colored suits, give TV interviews freely, and call themselves the Beeba Boys (which more or less translates to “good fellas”). Mehta doesn’t waste much time on the intricacies of their black-market dealings, focusing instead on the group’s vulgar yet decidedly Punjabi-flavored banter, and their unhesitant willingness to kill anyone who inconveniences them.
Unlike most movie mobsters, Jeet still lives with his mother (Balinder Johal) in a nice, multi-story suburban house, and likes to consider himself a decent single father to his grade-school-age son (Samir Amarshi). The film’s most distinctive humor involves the strange intersections of business and family within this criminal subculture, as rival Sikh gang bosses’ mothers all see one another socially, and kvetch long-sufferingly about why their gunslinging scions can’t just get along.
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Though an opening credits sequence set to ear-splitting Bhangra introduces each of the Boys with their old-timey gangster nicknames, only one of them manages to really register: Manny (Wes Anderson regular Waris Ahluwalia), the gang’s bearded, turbaned getaway driver who tells long, off-color jokes with the serene gravity of parables. While Jeet is serving a short a term in jail, however, he meets a hapless kidnapper named Nep (Ali Momen), whose usefulness in a fight and seeming sense of loyalty gain him Beeba Boys membership upon release.
Ironically, Nep is secretly allied with Jeet’s main rival, the old-school Robbie Grewal (Gulshan Grover). Working through Grewal’s tough, seductive daughter Choti (Gia Sandhu), he ensconces himself as a sleeper agent within the gang just as battles over turf start to heat up. To further complicate matters, Jeet has become enamored with Katya (Sarah Allen), a blonde bombshell juror from his most recent trial, and sets her up in his penthouse. Possessing the figure of a supermodel and the mind of a teenybopper, Katya attempts to ingratiate herself into the Sikh community, in ways that prove as ill-fated as her abrupt discovery of cocaine as a great way to while away the hours waiting for her paramour to pay a visit.
Punctuated by brisk exchanges of dialogue and gunfire, this is a film that lives or dies on the quality of its acting and its pacing, and both are a bit too uneven to fully work. The veteran Hooda knows exactly how to frame his character, playing up Jeet’s steely-eyed magnetism and his brutality in a way that wouldn’t be out of place in a more serious action pic, making it all the funnier when he does lighten up. As Jeet’s young protege and potential betrayer, however, Momen is too stilted to really sell his character’s careful duplicity, making the whole double-agent thrust of the plot seem like an afterthought.
With a big enough budget to allow for plenty of helicopter shots and lavish interiors, Mehta clearly appears to be having fun conducting this bouncy, garishly hued farce, though one wishes she’d tightened some of the structural screws a bit more carefully. Punchlines often arrive a few beats too late, or linger too long. And in the closing third, when the film starts to kill off its major characters one by one, the violence never quickens the pulse nor tugs on the emotions, leaving us unsure what we’re supposed to be feeling about any of this.
Too intellectual and empathetic a filmmaker to simply treat the whole story as junk food, Mehta includes some interesting asides that try to explain the Beeba Boys’ posturing within the larger context of the South Asian immigrant experience. In the film’s most genuinely affecting yet out-of-place scene, Jeet’s elderly, alcoholic father (Kulbushan Kharbanda), talks about his early life as a young immigrant toiling in freezing cold cranberry bogs. With his flashy threads and nihilistic glare, it’s clear that Jeet is determined to overcompensate for the previous generation’s exploitation, though these delicate touches risk getting lost in all the film’s shouting and shooting.