'Leo' film review: A roar settles into a whimper

Director Lokesh Kanagaraj has spoken about how this is 100 per cent his film, but for vast portions in the second half, it doesn’t quite feel like it.
'Leo' starring Vijay.
'Leo' starring Vijay.

Poor Parthiban (Vijay) can’t catch a break, with each of his new shirts getting destroyed in unique ways. It’s a running gag almost. It’s also why Parthiban’s wife Sathya (Trisha) picks up an argument with him when we first meet them. The Lokesh universe isn’t known for these cutesy conversations; foremost among the joys is how he sets up and executes action blocks. 

Parthiban, as you can imagine, does plenty of fighting in this film, and my most favourite is the coffee-shop fight at the beginning. Parthiban and his daughter are having this goofy moment while the bad guys enter the cafe. Lokesh takes his time. He gets Parthiban to dance a bit; he lets the scene breathe and when mayhem comes calling, it’s fantastic to behold.

There are plenty of joys to be found in the first half of this film that begins by acknowledging the influence of David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005). This is a familiar template for those of us raised on the charms of hero-centric cinema. Is the protagonist pretending to be a family man? Does he have a history of violence? When will the crowd-pleasing transformation occur? Where this film (and A History of Violence) differs from, say, a Baasha or a Theri, is how the protagonist seems almost to be suffering from self-delusion.

And yet, I’m not sure Leo, the film, shows as much interest as, A History of Violence, in digging into the psychological ramifications of this exercise—or in its effect on those around Parthiban. In this enjoyable first half, Lokesh Kanagaraj breaks many rules of the hero-centric film format. There’s no introduction song. There’s no fuss made over showing us Vijay and Trisha for the first time. It feels like Vijay is well and truly invested in playing this almost crazy man, with all his jagged edges. He’s screaming, crying, pleading... Sometimes, he’s doing all three—and to himself. It’s a complex role, and Vijay is great in it. And yet, when the film ended, I was left with questions.

If this is 100 % a Lokesh film, is he perhaps a prisoner of the standards his own previous excellence has set? The song, “Naa Ready”, is great. And yet, I wondered if the time could not have been better spent. How about utilising it to help us understand Antony Das (Sanjay Dutt) and Harold Das (Arjun) better? Who are these two really, apart from their relationship to Leo? I mean, who are they really and why are they the way they are? The writing of these two antagonists is among the biggest issues in Leo. And of course, it would have helped to write the women better too. It doesn’t feel like Sathya (Trisha) brings a whole lot to the film—and as for the other surprise inclusion, there’s even less impact.

The best parts of Leo are when it feels like the film is having a lot of fun—like Parthiban, after losing control of himself each time, sitting in the police station to hilarious effect, while the rest of the world, including the cop Joshy (a likeable GVM), mops up after him. Or when Parthiban casually suggests the name Subramani to a hyena. And oh, a pat on the back for everyone involved in putting the hyena scenes together—it’s lifelike and did not once threaten my suspension of disbelief. Dwelling on the focus on this creature, it seemed to me like the hyena was something of a spirit animal for Parthiban. He too is removed from his pack, his instincts all wrong in a different setting.

He too is in danger and is frightened, he too is snarling and can cause great damage to aggressors. But these layers aside, I do think the film should have done better in exploring the dichotomy of this mass-murdering maniac whose heart beats so dearly for animals. It’s an interesting character trait, but it leaves so many questions. I was also not quite sure about Leo’s position on drugs. If it changed, when did it? How strongly does he feel about it, as opposed to, say, a Vikram? In its eagerness to create stunt sequences, one or two of which are oddly generic for a Lokesh Kanagaraj film, Leo leaves some of these important spaces unattended.

When the action works though, it’s great. There is an urgency to the action that’s rare in our cinema, a reality to it that can leave the weak-hearted shaken. Lokesh ensures that the camera, like the eagle, is busy flying around, giving us unusual perspectives of the action. You see this in a car chase too, with the lights in the mist bringing a ghostly quality to the action. In between, I didn’t much care for all the cigarette stylizing though. It’s fine to capture it as a habit of a character, but lately, it feels like we have returned to fetishising it with stars. But yes, there are some cool touches, as you’d expect in a film like this. Like a crowd-favourite character getting to handle a gun or Mansoor Ali Khan, playing a kaithi and eating biriyani. And yet, are both characters offering any unforgettable moments?

The joys get sparse as Leo goes on. Lokesh has spoken about how this is 100 % his film, but for vast portions in the second half, it doesn’t quite feel like it. That’s perhaps because Lokesh, with previous films, has trained us to expect better. He has trained us to expect charismatic antagonists. He has trained us to expect proper emotional stakes. He has trained us to expect a certain democracy when it comes to the writing of characters beyond the protagonist. And if his film belongs to the LCU, he has trained us to expect tasteful connections and rousing reveals. I must declare that by Lokesh’s own lofty standards, Leo feels like a step down—but this doesn’t mean it is devoid of pleasures.

Director:  Lokesh Kanagaraj
Cast: Vijay, Trisha, Sanjay Dutt, Arjun, Gautham Vasudev Menon

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