Editor, U.S. ; Dallas, Texas (@HatefulJosh)
I wasn't expecting much going into Sriram Raghavan's Agent Vinod. Not by any fault of Mr. Raghavan, I've just learned to be cautious about any film which features Saif Ali Khan in a lead role. Though he has the royal lineage of a proper Bollywood star as well as the good looks, he has never quite managed the charisma that a leading man requires. This film is Khan's baby, he's fought for it through numerous delays, he produced it, and it's being sold as a Saif Ali Khan film, the first big one he's headlined in a while. Unfortunately, for all the work that he's put in, the film peters out in the third act in spite of flashes of ingenuity throughout. You were so close, Saif!

The film begins with a nausea inducing bit of shaky cam gunplay in a nameless middle eastern location. Agent Vinod (Khan) escapes some nasty captors through some tricky maneuvers, rescues the MacGuffin, and picks up a lovely lady along the way. This is the pattern, and it is repeated several times throughout the film, though thankfully they ditched the shaky cam after this first conflagration. From there the film twists and turns through various levels of terrorist cells, all of whom seek control of a nuclear "suitcase bomb" that has recently appeared on the black market. It's up to Vinod to find the bomb before it's too late.

That's right, there's nothing new under the sun here, but there are so few new stories to tell that it is still all about the execution, right? For a large part of the running time, Raghavan keeps us on our toes, shooting Agent Vinod in a dozen countries, weaving in and out of the lives of dozens of hoodlums and potential scumbags. Several times he gets caught, and each time the escape is the same; a gun to his head, Vinod turns the tables and scoots out a window/door and onto the next leg of his adventure. As contrived as that sounds, the action and quick pacing really make it work. Khan's character is certainly more likeable than I'm used to seeing from him, and a lot less wooden, but it is really the editorial decisions and directorial style that characterize this film as something to get excited about.

Sriam Raghavan (director, Johnny Gaddar) knows what he's doing behind the camera. He shoots busy action sequences with relative ease, he does an excellent job staging stunt sequences that are both exciting and more or less realistic, and he keeps the camera tight when the action is in tight spaces. We are in the middle of the action, which makes it all the more visceral. There is also much to be said for Raghavan's fantastic use of background scoring in the film, which runs the gamut from standard stuff to the more interesting classic Bollywood drops in some sequences and romantic Hindi tunes behind one particularly silly shootout in a Latvian brothel. There is a lot to like in this film, and most of it I attribute directly to Sriram Raghavan, if for no other reason than I find it hard to believe that Saif Ali Khan's instincts are that good.

One piece of the film that I didn't expect to engage me was Kareena Kapoor's character, Dr. Iram Bilal, a Pakistani ex-pat with a complicated past who becomes Khan's traveling companion and co-spy. I must admit, until the last year or so, Kareena Kapoor bugged the shit out of me, and I can't really explain why. However, some of her recent roles in big name Bollywood films have turned me around and I've begun to recognize a kind of charisma that I've been avoiding for a long time. Kapoor has attitude, there's no denying it, and it comes across on screen particularly well when she's acting next to someone without that same inherent charisma, like Saif Ali Khan.

For the first three-quarters of Agent Vinod, this James Bond styled spy story mish-mash was working remarkably well. Khan's Vinod was a charming sight, and Kapoor made her mark early and often, but there was just some sort of visceral impact missing from the film. There was never any real sense of danger, Vinod seemed infallible, which is great if you're Vinod, but somewhat boring to watch for two and a half hours. As much as I loved the scenery, the fights, the globe-trotting, and even the chemistry between real life fiances Khan and Kapoor, I was never scared for them. However, it was the final conflict that was really the piece of the puzzle that just didn't fit.

The climactic moment when Agent Vinod finally had his hands on the ticking nuclear bomb should have been bursting with tension, but it was handled pretty sloppily and left a bad taste in my mouth. There is some pretty awful CG, as well as some cringe-inducing acting on the part of the rest of Vinod's team who were supposed to be on the edge of their seats. Add in a pretty dumpy little final touch from Kapoor, and you've got a pretty lame ending to an otherwise above average spy flick. It just doesn't have the feel of immediacy that the rest of the film does, and it reeks of intervention, perhaps on the part of an overzealous star/producer, though that's purely speculation.

Agent Vinod is a pretty decent little spy action thriller, but it lacks the knockout blow that would have made it a real killer. Last December's Don 2 from Shahrukh Khan and Farhan Akhtar aimed for the international audience and ended up with a mediocre film, but Agent Vinod wore Bollywood pride on its sleeve and came out as a much more entertaining venture, in spite of its failings. This begs the question, how good can a film be if it can't seal the deal? I really enjoyed a lot of Agent Vinod, but I can't help thinking that something went wrong at exactly the wrong time. The film's numerous production delays surely affected the atmosphere in some way, and it's apparent on screen that this was a product rather than a passion, which is unfortunate.
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