Review: COMMANDO 2: THE BLACK MONEY TRAIL, Too Much Talking, Not Enough Punching
Vidyut Jamwal is an actor with the skills, looks, and talent to become an international action regular. I hesitate to say he could be a star on the level of someone like Jackie Chan or Jet Li, but he certainly as at least as much charisma as someone like Tony Jaa or Iko Uwais. He's good fashion model good looks, a physique good enough to dampen the loins of the women of the world, and his martial arts and gymnastic skills are solid enough to give someone like Jaa a run for his money with the size of someone like Michael Jai White of Marko Zaror. So why isn't he a star yet? Probably because of films like Commando 2: The Black Money Trail.
In 2013 Jamwal made is debut as a leading man in the low budget actioner Commando: A One Man Army and immediately lit up audiences with his remarkable flexibility, agility, and movie star good looks. While the film wasn't a modern masterpiece by any means, it certainly delivered the goods in terms of martial arts action and '80s style Cannon action on a tiny budget in a film that surprised fans in India and even made a minor impact on the genre festival circuit at events like Fantastic Fest and Fantasia.
Even though the film never saw a commercial release in North America, Commando alerted the action film diehards to the presence of a new talent to watch out for. So, when word first came that Commando 2 was on the horizon, we all sat up and waited patiently for the return of Vidyut Jamwal in a film that would perhaps make better use of his talents and maybe even a bigger budget. That wait has lasted four long years, and unfortunately it looks like we'll have to continue waiting for a film that builds on Commando's reputation, rather than detracts from it.
Producer Vipul Amritlal Shah and writer Ritesh Shah return to action for the second Commando film, and their motto appears to be more = better. In this rough continuation of the first film, Jamwal's Commando Karan Dogra is sent to Bangkok to round up one of India's biggest tax scofflaws and criminals, Vicky Chadha. The film is loosely based on the recent demonetization scheme from India's Prime Minister in which 80% of the nation's hard paper currency was deemed illegal in an attempt to ferret out cash stores of those involved in nefarious deeds.
The new setting allows for ever more elaborate and ornate visuals after the first film's more than a little subdued jungle/village vibe. Karan has also gotten a promotion to high level agent of the Indian government and his own team of operatives. So, instead of the "Army of One" of the first film, we now have a bunch of lesser sidekicks to deal with. This is the first problem with Commando 2, more does not equal better in this case, and the focus of the film becomes more and more diffuse as the story attempts to wrangle all of these characters.
The first film was able to harness the sheer power of Vidyut Jamwal by putting him as the very clear focus and primary driving narrative force. He's not a great actor, but he is a very competent performer given the right set of circumstances and a solid script that understands his abilities and limitations. In Commando 2 he's asked to helm a much more ambitious project - read: more expensive - and with that obligation came the desire of the filmmakers to crank everything up to eleven. The problem is that they elements they decided to accentuate are not the elements that made the first film worth watching.
Vidyut Jamwal is an incredible athlete and wonderfully talented martial artist, so the idea here should have been to accentuate those skills and focus more on the reason the audience bought the ticket in the fisrt place. Instead we get a sprawling story, extraneous characters who do nothing other than provide unnecessary comic relief, and the dilution of Jamwal's talent in the service of attempting to create a larger world for the character. It doesn't work. The film is bloated beyond redemption and almost everything that endeared audiences to this character is either completely stripped or cranked up to a farcical extreme that detaches the audience from the film.
When I walked into Commando 2 I wanted to see one thing; I wanted to see Karan Dogra kick a lot of ass. For the first few minutes I thought I might get my wish, unfortunately it was a tease that only accentuated by frustration with the direction the film decided to go. After an opening action sequence that does a relatively good job of letting us know that we are back in Commando's world, the film spends nearly as hour setting up characters, several of whom are red herrings or Maguffins, before returning to the punch. An hour. Even by Bollywood standards that's an awfully long time between set pieces in an action film. And then, we're basically told that nothing about the first half of the film was relevant anyway.
It's a stupid and insulting bait and switch that does nothing to advance the story and actually detracts from the film's momentum by introducing a villain at the halfway point and discarding characters who had almost managed to earn empathy without looking back. Narratively, it's a goddamned disaster, and that's not even to mention the ridiculous romance that gets shoehorned into the film, and numerous unnecessary and baffling twists that render huge chucks of plot irrelevant. Enemies turn out to be friends, friends turn out to be enemies, and with not a shred of foreshadowing. It's sloppy writing that fails monstrously at its goals and left me feeling very cheated.
Okay, so the story isn't that great, and the action scenes are too few and too far between. Perhaps if the action sequences that are part of the film are good enough, those narrative sins can be forgiven.
Unfortunately, that didn't happen either. Part of the appeal of the first Commando film was the fact that all of the stunts in the film were done in camera. No wires, no doubles, no CG. However, all of that has gone out the window in Commando 2, where numerous green screen action sequences are staged, there is a ton of wire work, and the editing of the film leaves the viewer unsure if even the wire stunts were performed by Jamwal. A huge part of Jamwal's appeal is the fact that he doesn't need fancy tricks to make his skills look amazing. He's been touted as the next Tony Jaa, but even Tony Jaa waited several films before succumbing to the wire-fu menace, Jamwal did it in his second solo outing and it just looks bad.
I'm used to Bollywood action defying physics at every opportunity, but Commando was a breath of fresh air simply because India finally had an action star whose skills spoke for themselves. Sadly Jamwal is hung out to dry by the director, Devan Bhojani, and much of his incredible talent is left on the table in what should've been a huge coming out party for this performer. Not only is the action highly staged and augmented by wires and CG, it's also incredibly slow moving for the most part, as well as being repetitive. Everything Commando 2 does well, it did better the first time around, and in a much shorter running time.
As if the dilution of Jamwal's talent by the stunt team wasn't enough, the film also attempts to throw in a terrible looking GoPro first person action sequence toward the end of the film. The POV sequence is confusing to watch and not very well staged, leaving me baffled as to what was going on and even worse, completely confused as to the geography of the scene. It's the kind of gimmickry that untalented performers need. Allowing the scene to focus on his talents rather than throwing in an completely unnecessary and unsuccessful visual stunt is an amateur move.
Vidyut Jamwal is a martial artist with movie star good looks, the last thing he needs is gimmicks mucking up his film, but here we are, marveling over the aftermath of a complete disaster where a grand success should've been. Cut away at least forty minutes of this two and a half hour beast, remove half of the characters, ditch the wire-work, and tell the stunt team springy leg bouncy things stopped being cool ten years ago, and maybe there's something salvageable in Commando 2. The world was ready for a Vidyut Jamwal action epic, sadly, it got a dud. We'll have to wait a while longer for another film to truly give him the showcase he deserves, let's just hope it happens before people stop caring.