Unnikrishnan B wrote and directed ‘Villain,’ which garnered attention for several reasons since Mohanlal shared the movie’s first-look poster featuring himself in a salt & pepper avatar on his Facebook page. First, it is the inaugural film in India completely shot in 8K resolution, with Manoj Paramahamsa and N.K Ekambaram handling the camera. Second, it marks the first instance in Malayalam cinema where color-grading occurred during filming itself. Third, the film achieved record-breaking success in terms of overseas distribution, music, and satellite rights. Lastly, it boasts a massive star cast, including Manju Warrier, Vishal, Hansika, Srikanth, and numerous other popular Malayalam talents.
The writer/director chooses to narrate the story of ADGP Mathew Manjooran (Mohanlal) by mounting a reasonably large canvas with a wide array of characters, attempting a rather subtle mishmash of genres (crime/drama/thriller/family) well within his comfort zone (we saw Lal-Unnikrishnan duo churn out ‘Grandmaster’ five years ago, which was quite alright).
The story primarily alternates between Mathew’s past and present: Mathew has suffered a personal tragedy due to which he has been away from duty for nearly seven months, and when he eventually returns to work, he surprises everyone by opting for voluntary retirement and decides to go on a ‘journey of healing’. On the other end, a trio of murders have taken place in the city of Trivandrum and the police-force look up to Mathew for his expertise in cracking the case.
There isn’t a whole lot of novelty in the storyline or its presentation to boast of. The basic concept is in fact, rehashed from plenty of other films in the cop-thriller genre. The police procedural bits are undoubtedly the best; the delightful strewing of clues and red- herrings in the first half manage to keep the viewer sufficiently engaged (even though not on the edge of their seats). However, the audience quickly realizes that Unnikrishnan isn’t exactly interested in building mystery around the identity of the antagonist. Instead, he aims to challenge traditional notions of ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ through philosophical exchanges and a slight overdose of sentimentality.
The genre-thrills are practically absent in the latter half and predictability begins to play spoilsport. What drives an investigative thriller forward, even with the antagonist-reveal coming in quite early, is how the protagonist pieces together the whole ordeal and when things start to make sense, without logic having to take a beating. ‘Villain’ unfortunately comes well short of fulfilling those expectations and struts along in a strictly straight-forward fashion.
The narrative could have enhanced certain characters’ writing. Shakthivel (Vishal) plays a pivotal role, but the film quickly explains the reasons for his actions through brief flashback montages with voiceovers. This approach fails to convey the intensity of his transformation from a doctor to a psychopathic killer. The relationship between Shakthivel and his girlfriend Shreya (Hansika) had the potential for an exciting story, yet it remains insufficiently explored. Felix (Srikanth), a drug lord seeking redemption against Mathew for his past exploits, comes across as a one-note cardboard wrongdoer rather than a nuanced character.
Mohanlal proves why he is still the undisputed acting champion of India, with a bravura act that is tremendously restrained from start to finish. Even though Mathew quotes philosophy (and Shakespeare) a tad too often, which sounds excruciating after a point (especially during the moderately prolonged climactic ‘talkathon’ between himself and Shakthivel), it always helps that Mohanlal is the one delivering these lines. The way he emotes in the hospital scenes is a vivid lesson for aspiring performers – simply breathtaking!
Manju Warrier, in a poorly written character (of Mathew’s wife Neelima), does a great job with respect to what the script offers her. When Mohanlal and Manju Warrier (two of the most bankable actors of Malayalam filmdom) share the silver-screen, the chemistry is by- default electric, even when their lines let them down. ‘Villain’ is a botched effort no doubt, but the ensemble (Siddique, Ranji Panicker, Raashi Khanna and Chemban Vinod to name a few) makes us buy into the proceedings to an extent.
Music (by 4 Musics) is serviceable for all it’s worth – we will be forgetting most tracks as soon as radio stations surrender their fixation on them. Background score by Sushin Shyam complements the film’s vibe perfectly. Stunts by Peter Hein are just about adequate, without being overly ‘massy’. Editing (by Shameer Mohammed) could have been tauter (chiefly in the second half). One could easily consider ‘Villain’ as one of Unnikrishnan’s better films, but that alone does not suffice for it to be classified as a compelling fare overall.
Verdict: Plenty of reasons to give it a miss, but one magic word pretty much outdoes it all – Mohanlal!
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