If Hollywood can justify making sequels to “Rambo” and “Top Gun” more than three decades on, why can’t Kollywood do the same? In tons-of-fun “Vikram,” a secret agent first introduced in 1986 emerges from deep undercover to thwart the biggest drug deal in Indian history. He’s a grandfather now, but that doesn’t stop the title character (Kamal Haasan) from tossing people across the room in this turbo-charged, three-hour action bonanza, which pairs Vikram with a younger operative named Amar (Fahadh Faasil). The two have at least one thing in common: Rules and regulations don’t matter, which means they’re free to fight crime as creatively as they (and director Lokesh Kanagaraj) see fit.
Taking a page from James Cameron’s “True Lies,” with its go-big-or-go-home approach to set-pieces, Kanagaraj has pulled off a memorably over-the-top blockbuster and the year’s top-grossing Tamil-language hit (at $53.7 million and counting). There’s at least one other trick the helmer has learned from Hollywood — although the entire project can feel like an epic parody of studio hyperbole at times — and that’s the strategy of connecting the film to past and future projects (so far, just 2019’s “Kaithi”) through overlapping plotlines and characters: Call it the Lokesh Cinematic Universe.
In a way, that’s how repurposing the name Vikram functions, too, tying this new movie to one of its star’s earlier hits without worrying too much about how they relate. Beyond dozens of winking in-jokes, the two movies have little in common as Kanagaraj brings the character into the 21st century. Cue one of the catchiest tunes you’ll hear all year, composer Anirudh Ravichander’s amped-up redo of Ilaiyaraaja’s 1986 theme for the original “Vikram,” which plays over a backlit battle royal designed to evoke the earlier film’s iconically styled title sequence.
Although Kanagaraj leans heavily on music to power the action — mostly intense electric guitar riffs and drum ’n’ bass blasts — he features just one traditional number: Near the outset, an open-shirted Haasan leads a crowd of drifters through a series of dad-like dance moves around a rundown train yard. A beat later, the same character is being executed on-camera by a squad of masked terrorists, a shocking crime that leads police chief Jose (Chemban Vinod Jose) to put loose cannon Amar on the case. Amar is due to be married in a few days, and he has sworn his fiancée (Gayathrie) never to question him about his job, which involves everything from torturing suspects to questioning prostitutes.
It will take the movie the next hour and a half to reveal what everyone in the audience assumes going in: that Haasan’s character — a consistently inebriated, bordello-frequenting buffoon who calls himself Karnan — wasn’t actually murdered. Nor was he the deadbeat his family and servants had been led to believe. He is, in fact … Vikram, leader of the Black Squad spy team, elite government agents betrayed and left for dead by their double-crossing superiors. The real mystery, which the movie enjoys teasing, is whether this seemingly contradictory fellow is a hero or a villain — a question eventually answered by a long anti-drug speech and the sight of Haasan blasting everyone away with a vintage Browning machine gun.
Kanagaraj likes his characters complicated, which makes the otherwise cartoonish film considerably more interesting. Also welcome is the way “Vikram” isn’t fazed by American body ideals: The film’s Pablo Escobar-like druglord Sandhanam (Vijay Sethupathi) is a massive ox of a man. And apart from the ankle-cutting little person (Jaffer Sadiq) who leads his crew, Faasil is frequently the shortest person on screen. Like a Jack Russell terrier, however, Amar compensates for his stature with sheer ferocity, intimidating everyone he crosses. (Haasan is no bodybuilder either, but fights hard, throwing his paunch into every punch.)
A two-ton shipment of an experimental raw substance (one gram of which makes a kilo of cocaine) has gone missing, and Sandhanam wants it back. Could he be the masked terrorist? Doubtful, since he operates so far above the law, he doesn’t need a disguise to kill with impunity. Sandhanam is slow and lumbering by nature, but keeps a blue, crystal-like substance that gives him Popeye-like powers: One bite and he goes into berserker mode. Even Sandhanam answers to somebody, taking calls from someone named Rolex, finally revealed (as Tamil star Suriya) in the very last scene.
The movie bulges at the seams with subplots and characters, though Kanagaraj makes it easy and entertaining to follow the twists, and some of the action scenes are better conceived and choreographed than what Hollywood is producing these days. A wedding banquet-turned-bloodbath is a high point of the first half, while Amar’s own ceremony (which he misses while on duty) feels like a missed opportunity. Just when you think the movie has no use for its female characters, along comes Agent Tina (Vasanthi) in the second half to steal the show, upstaging even Vikram.
Best known for his comic chops, Haasan has fun with the role: As the adoptive grandfather of an adorable baby with a sensitivity to loud noises, he goes out of his way to keep things quiet when the carnage comes within earshot of the infant. Later, he risks his life to boil formula for the crying infant while Sandhanam’s goons storm his house. Kanagaraj goes too far when it comes to endangering the heroes’ wives and children, to the point that the film’s manipulative climax involves desperately trying to resuscitate the baby during the big boss battle. The excess is half the fun in such films, and “Vikram” consistently goes big without overdoing it. Kanagaraj’s strategy: Leave them wanting more, and let his Lokesh Cinematic Universe carry on when the time is right.