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Leo movie review: ‘Thalapathy’ Vijay delivers career-best performance in Lokesh Kanagaraj’s almost misfire

Leo movie review: While Leo is undoubtedly a feather in ‘Thalapathy’ Vijay’s cap, it is indeed a step back for writer-director Lokesh Kanagaraj.

Once expectations begin to mount on them, directors start following the voice of hype and not their uniqueness or talent that earned them that acclaim in the first place. Lokesh Kanagaraj, however, is keenly aware of this tendency and consistently avoids falling into this trap. Lokesh’s style deviates significantly from the typical masala formula where the mass appeal is introduced at every juncture in accordance with the star’s popularity. Instead, his films derive their ‘mass’ from the specific narratives and focal points, contributing to their distinctiveness.

His latest, ‘Thalapathy’ Vijay-starrer Leo, is, however, a mix of this and many other things; but what it lacks is a solid screenplay that Lokesh used to guarantee.

Unlike many Indian filmmakers, who often copy from different sources without giving due credit, Lokesh boldly begins Leo by acknowledging it as a tribute to David Cronenberg’s 2005 actioner A History of Violence. What sets Leo apart is that it isn’t reduced to a mere imitation of the original, instead Lokesh adapts the storyline to fit the essence of Tamil/Indian aesthetics, thereby constructing a distinctive world.

The film narrates the tale of Parthiban, an animal rescuer and café owner who lives in Himachal Pradesh with his family, wife Sathya (Trisha) and their two children. As mentioned by Lokesh earlier, the film refrains from giving Thalapathy a grand introduction or powerful dialogues initially, emphasising his ordinary, unassuming life. However, as the plot unfolds, he becomes involved in a series of challenges, attracting media attention. The situation escalates, and his story becomes known throughout the country, catching the interest of ruthless criminals who notice his striking similarity to former gangster Leo Das, the son of infamous warlord and tobacco magnate Antony Das (Sanjay Dutt). Although it was assumed that Leo died in a tragic fire accident, Antony and his brother Harold (Arjun), upon seeing Parthiban’s photo, are convinced that he is Leo. The rest of the film revolves around their attempts to uncover the truth, while Parthiban struggles to protect himself and his family.

Although Vijay’s introduction does not adhere to the typical Thalapathy template, Lokesh provides him with something even more intriguing, akin to what NTR Jr received in SS Rajamouli’s RRR — a face-off with a human-eating hyena. However, instead of using this scene to showcase his physical prowess, Lokesh zooms in on Parthiban’s presence of mind and sharpness, steering away from the conventional Vijay films. Similar to Lokesh’s previous movies, Leo unfolds at a steady pace, avoiding abrupt transitions and forced cuts. The film takes its time to delve into the various aspects of Parthiban and his family’s ordinary and cheerful lives.

Similar to A History of Violence, the film appropriately justifies the inciting incident and the point of no return (PONR), albeit with a more intense display of violence. The first half of the movie adeptly navigates through the various obstacles encountered by the characters, as numerous attempts are made on Parthiban’s life under the assumption that he is Leo. This appears to effectively set the stage for the explosive events that await audiences in the second half.

However, in the latter half, the focus narrows down to a single question: Is he truly Leo? This singular focus hinders the overall narrative, leading to a sense of repetition, with the audiences anticipating an imminent answer to allow the story to progress. Nonetheless, by delaying the revelation until the final moments, the film becomes fixated solely on this aspect.

Although the film began on a powerful note, script-wise, it takes a significant downturn in the second half. Even though Lokesh managed to transliterate A History of Violence without merely translating it, the film lacks a sense of originality, especially since the story is almost 18 years old, and the only freshness in it is the incorporation of a regional essence. Furthermore, as the “nice guy with a dark past” is a trope that many Indian movies have frequently capitalised on, the writer-director’s failure to enhance it further results in Leo being the least compelling screenplay by Lokesh thus far.

Despite several characters repeatedly asserting Leo’s ruthless nature, the flashback scenes depicting him appear inadequate to justify these claims. The sudden appearance and disappearance of Leo’s sister Elisa (Madonna Sebastian) also disrupts the movie’s flow.

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