6 January 2012

Players: The Italian Job becomes a Bollywood timepass

The first of my Friday film review columns for Firstpost.com: Abbas-Mustan's Players.

In an industry in which remakes get made all the time without anyone batting an eyelid about credits, Abbas-Mustan have for some reason gone to town telling us that their latest release Players is based on The Italian Job. This rather unusual circumstance seemed occasion enough for me to return to the original 1969 comic caper starring Michael Caine and Noel Coward which continues to top British popularity charts — it was declared Britain’s greatest movie in a 2011 Sky Movies HD poll. Watching the Abbas-Mustan confection immediately afterwards, I must confess to a sense of complete bafflement at how little the two films had in common, and even a creeping sense of admiration for the wholesale reworking of plot and characters that was needed to transform the memorable but slender creature of the 60s into this rather more tentacled — if characteristically overblown — Bollywood animal. Until I realised that of course a 1969 British film would have been way too obscure for Abbas-Mustan; what they had remade was F. Gary Gray’s much more recent 2003 Hollywood version, starring Mark Wahlberg, Donald Sutherland and Charlize Theron, which I still haven’t seen. Still, it’s a fun enough exercise to see what Players (2011) and The Italian Job (1969) have in common. The opening gambit is retained: a gangster dies at the hands of the mafia (there Italian, here Russian), leaving behind a seductive widow (there admirably unsoppy, here of course necessarily immoral and therefore incipiently villainous). She passes on his recorded message about an unfinished ‘job’ – then a videotape, now a DVD – to his friend, our hero Charlie (played by Abhishek Bachchan, but seemingly we must keep the name, hence he has to be Goan – Charlie Mascarenhas). But while Michael Caine’s character was a dandy and a womaniser, a bit of a buffoon who gets a big plan ready-made, our Abhishek is the hero; so, of course, he’s just told the location of the gold; the plan is his own. The team of the world’s best ‘players’, however, is provided by his imprisoned mentor, Victor Dada (Vinod Khanna, not making much impact here). The heist itself is fairly well etched. The 1969 original involved a van delivering gold to a Turin bank, and had the manufacture of a Turin traffic jam as the core of the getaway strategy. In the 2003 version, the gold is in a safe in a Venetian palazzo, and the getaway is a gondola-filled ride through the canals, while pushing the traffic jam to Los Angeles, in a second half that comes after betrayal and murder. Players puts the heist in that perennial location so beloved of Hindi movies — a train. The writers have created a nice little backstory for the gold, a historical vignette involving a real Romanian treasure that was sent to Russia for safekeeping during the First World War and never returned by future Soviet governments. This is astoundingly good research by Hindi movie standards, and the film even manages to throw in a few seconds of real black-and-white footage. The execution of the heist is a little more characteristically Abbas-Mustan, involving Bobby Deol as a melancholy illusionist (umm, yes), Bipasha Basu as an automobile expert (though her blue-blinking speed booster for the train looks like something straight out of Space City Sigma), Sikander Kher as a deaf bomb expert called Bilal Behra, Omi Vaidya as a make-up artist and wannabe hero and Neil Nitin Mukesh as Spider, the world’s best hacker. In any case, the heist takes place, and betrayal and murder follow. The scene shifts to Wellington, Down Under, and then we have another heist, this time with the members of the gang having to outwit each other. But since no more can be given away, let me dwell instead on the world-conquering qualities of Indians attested to by this film: the “world’s best” hacker is unsurprisingly desi, but so is the young woman who can trace him overnight: enter Sonam Kapoor, jisne “ethical hacking mein Masters kiya hai”. We’re also linguistic geniuses: our gang gets a bunch of new phones loaded with a Russian speaking course and within less than a month, they’re masquerading as Russian generals – with speaking parts. (Look out for a fun little cameo from Vyacheslav Razbegaev as a Raj Kapoor-loving general who can’t understand why Indians sing when they get horny.) The crowning glory is the garage-owner played by Johnny Lever, Abbas-Mustan’s lucky mascot, who lives in Australia with a white wife and children who speak pure Hindi and want guests to stay on for the Satyanarayan ki katha. The original car chase – three colourful Minis racing up and down staircases and into arcades, followed by a posse of motorcycles as a bemused public scatters – is more or less intact. But the tone is transformed. In the 1969 original, the most complicated chases are carried out in elaborately choreographed fashion, with the music elevating the mood far above mere adrenalin-pumping action to a kind of deadpan high art. Things may seem to careen crazily in the darkness of subway tunnels, but the madness is all method. Players isn’t meant to be funny or even droll, just a pacy thriller. And all it really wants to recreate of the original is the spectacle of shiny cars being thrown down hillsides to crumple up into little heaps at the bottom of the valley… which I suppose is legitimately cinematic, really. If only the acting were better.

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