While Hollywood holds the world's audience enraptured, unleashing big, burly CGI extravaganzas, burgeoning international companies are revving up to put a dent into the market. Enter "RA. One," Bollywood's most expensive production and arguably the first straightforward superhero film to come out of India's massively prolific movie factory. As with any tentpole (with a warm reception pouring in from the Indian press, news of a sequel in the works are inevitable), the film comes packaged with a colossal star -- Shahrukh Khan, probably most familiar to American viewer as the star of 2010's heavy-handed drama "My Name Is Khan"). Equally important is the merchandising push, which can challenge even the most gregarious stateside rollout (the Wikipedia page expounds on coffee mugs, Happy Meals, a video game, game tournaments, action figures, comics -- major steps for an Indian film with an eye on the world market). So what you're probably asking yourself is, can director Anubhav Sinha's "RA. One" keep up with the big boys? With a 2 hour 40 minute running time and several standout set pieces, it certainly can, meanwhile sacrificing the bare minimum of character development and delivering a sluggish second act that marries "Terminator 2: Judgment Day" and "Bicentennial Man" with little success.
Shekhar (Khan with a terrifically bad curly wig) is a socially maladjusted programmer working in London under an out-sized tycoon who berates the staff regularly. His son Prateek (Armaan Verma) sees his father as no more than a weakling that pales in comparison to the villains the boy worships, his bedroom adorned with posters of iconic bad guys. When Shekhar, in an attempt to win his son's affection, crafts a game with an unbeatable villain, the titular RA. One or Random Access One, Prateek is on the verge of connecting with his dad. But then RA. One escapes the confines of the game world via a very shaky "scientific" premise communicated earlier in the film, and now fully-realized, hunts for "Lucifer" -- Prateek's gamer tag.
It's important to leave the rest unspoiled, because the film makes a key choice to eliminate a major character an hour in -- a move that seems risky until you realize it isn't. Khan is front and present as Shekhar and later good guy avatar G.One, and his acting, despite Shekhar being a broad caricature owing much to Jerry Lewis' Nutty Professor, manages to move you. There's a spirit of wholesomeness that pulses through "RA. One," playfulness even, and these vapors elevate the film during even the dullest parts. Cynicism barely rears its head and even the mean-spirited villain comes off less blood thirsty and more nefarious, all the while amassing a serious body count. It's a sunny-side-up attitude that's sorely missing in American blockbusters -- look no further than this summer's angry and unsparingly brutal "Transformers: Dark of the Moon".
While "RA. One" communicates via the universal language of a gravity-defying muscular man battling it out in mid-air while tossing power balls around, the humor and several cameos are aimed at Hindi audiences -- one that this writer recognized was Rajnikanth, star of "Endhiran," a South Indian blockbuster that made the Internet rounds last year when this lovingly crafted and absolutely insane bit of action goodness popped up online. Much of the jokes are garden-variety language puns or overwrought physical humor but they work, especially as relief for a second act that moves the action to Mumbai, where Prateek and Shekhar's wife Sonia (Kareena Kapoor) have to keep G.One out of the sight while the robot/virtual construct learns to be more human. It's largely unnecessary aside that feels cribbed from James Cameron's superior sci-fi classic and all but forces us to feel empathy for G.One, who bears Khan's likeness and is fated, nay, programmed to be the hero.
The running time is typical, even spare for a Bollywood film, and when the action lets up a bit, the dance sequences are sure to stun. While the set pieces start strong, they peter out when the climactic showdown between RA. One and G.One goes down, but the dance choreography, editing and a genuine sense of joy are infectious. True to its origins, "RA. One" features a good variety of pop songs, including two featuring Akon, in a smart marketing move. Despite having zero knowledge of Hindi, this writer's head was buzzing with made-up lyrics for several hours, maybe the most lasting impression the film makes. In the end "RA. One" impresses visually no less than a feature wielding twice the budget, but the habits of many Bollywood films (the length primarily, and the caricature acting) mixed with decidedly American action (explosions, slow-mo and speed-ramping rule the day) don't make for a very compelling film. Surely the film will be a success in its native land and will rake in significant bucks around the world (it's opening in a record-setting 5,000 theaters worldwide) -- whether that qualifies it as "good" is debatable. [C]