A full house screamed throughout last night’s Times Square premiere of “Jailer,” a grisly and comedic action Indian thriller starring Rajinikanth, the marquee-topping, Tamil-speaking septuagenarian and self-advertised “Super Star.” Or at least, everybody alive in that auditorium seemed to be cheering for Rajinikanth.
Rajinikanth (“Robot,” “Kaala”) is now 72 years old. His “Jailer” character, a retired cop and prison warden named Muthu “Tiger” Pandian, has a sassy young grandson and a knack for murdering villains. Beheadings and fatal stabbings are a Muthu specialty. He also has a vast network of shady old friends, played by a deep bench of Indian character actors and fellow leading men, who also help Muthu to kill the bad men who threaten his family.
In “Jailer,” the bad men are led by Varman (Vinayakan), a manic crime boss who kidnaps Muthu’s adult son Arjun (Vasanth Ravi), also a cop, and threatens to behead Arjun’s grandson Rithvik (Rithvik Jothi Raj), an aspiring YouTube star, while Rithvik and Muthu get ice cream. Varman’s men taunt Muthu by doing a grotesque dance of joy in the street. He retaliates by hacking at some of them with a gigantic blade: “After a point I don’t talk, I slash.” If you come to “Jailer” for anything but Rajinikinath, you will probably leave disappointed.
“Jailer” simultaneously is and isn’t a typical Rajinikanth vehicle. It’s more self-conscious and more committed than some of his other recent vehicles, as far as reconciling the tonal whiplash banked into the Indian cinema’s kitchen sink, mass-audience-minded masala style. The makers of “Jailer” toggle between emotional registers with confidence and alarming frequency, like whenever Muthu helps Rithvik film a gardening program for his YouTube channel, and then resumes his bloody feud with Varman. In a musical montage that only makes sense after a long-delayed plot twist, Muthu and Rithvik bask in each other’s company while an acoustic guitar plays and a singer paints a sunny picture of a man who, in Rithvik, also sees “my leader … my son.” Meanwhile, Arjun tortures one of Varman’s men, and also orders a fellow cop to not give water to his blood-soaked victim. The acoustic guitarist never takes a break.
The persistent extremity of Varman’s character-defining violence also gives old man Rajinikanth a mandate to be merciless. It’s sometimes even touching to see him match Varman since, as our antihero’s theme song boasts, “He will make your next generation dance to his tunes.” Rajinikanth is perhaps unusual when compared to, say, a Sylvester Stallone or a Steven Seagal, in that he still attracts the sort of young idolatrous filmmakers who all seem obsessed with making the now biologically mature star look eternally iconic. A friend who saw “Jailer” in Los Angeles last night joked about how many times Rajinikanth enters a new room with dramatic flair. In Times Square, each new slow-motion turn to the camera was met with screams. So were Rajinikanth’s lusty action scenes, especially when he finally notices Varman’s barrels of sulphuric acid.
Sometimes it’s hard to tell if director Nelson Dilipkumar knows what he’s doing, either with his star or this movie’s volatile mix of tones and styles. “Beast,” Dilipkumar’s loopy third-generation “Die Hard” clone, gives some helpful context since “Beast” pits the relatively young four-quadrant star Vijay against a shopping mall full of terrorists, one of whom he also beheads. In “Jailer,” Muthu is an older man with a legacy to consider. On-screen, Rajinikanth occasionally bumps his head against his emotional range’s low ceiling, like when Muthu cries about Arjun’s fate. In this scene, Rajinikanth leans as hard into his angles as he does whenever Muthu loses it and cackles like a lunatic with a secret.
Before an “INTERMISSION” intertitle flashed across the screen—they never pause for intermission at the AMC Empire 25—Muthu tells us that now that he’s got nothing to lose, he can stop juggling three different faces and just wear one. He says this to his family members after he warns them to stay perfectly still, so that he and his action-pose-ready friends can pick off some more bad men. After the “INTERMISSION” title, there’s an extensive new subplot involving an extra-marital affair, a bad toupee, the comedian Sunil, and the starlet Tamannaah Bhatia. Everybody acts as a version of themselves in “Jailer,” but only Rajinikanth’s performance pulls everything together by sheer willpower.
Rajinikanth is 72 years old, so it’s weirdly moving to see that, every two or three years, he can still crank out a freewheeling star vehicle as vigorous and exhausting as “Jailer.” Just outside theater 25, I overheard a 40-something year old man ask an older companion what he thought about “Jailer.” I couldn’t make out the older fellow’s response, but his chuckle and little shake of the head suggested that he was still enjoying Rajinikanth’s eternal summer.
In theaters now.