Note: This review contains some minor spoilers (mostly in mentioning plot points or scenes).
Gah, is all I can say.
Sriram Raghavan, I know you can do better this. I know it. You got your big budget action masala, filled with international terrorist intrigue and Saif Ali Khan as the man who never gives out his real name. And yet ..
I think the problem here is that Agent Vinod has one foot in the sort of clever throwback Hindifilm referentialness that Johnny Gaddaar did quite well with, and another foot in slick post-millennium action thriller genre. So it never quite comes together, it's got these themes it throws at the viewer and subsequently seems to either abandon or not really follow all the way through. Like the idea about fake names, a clip also used in the trailer that amused me a ton - good, clever. I mean, one of the most ridiculous ideas in film history is that James Bond shares his name so much it becomes a catch phrase of the film. But instead of playing around with this idea of fake identities, the film just kind of leaves it there. In the end, Agent Vinod is just ..Agent Vinod, some guy who's good at kicking unmerciful ass when need be and who's addicted to the thrills provided by his job. Wow, colour me invested.
Which leads me to my next big gripe. Remember that pivotal scene in Omkara where Langda gets slighted and we see a couple of seconds of betrayal and hurt and anguish in his face, and then he blinks it away and is already plotting his revenge? I look at Saif Ali Khan in this film and wonder if that was the same guy in both performances, because it does not feel like it. Even as a fan, I would never try to talk up his acting abilities and compare them to those of the exceptionally talented Indian actors, but he has his moments, and he can achieve quite subtle, interesting things with his acting. In here, the character that is quite hollow in terms of characterisation remains hollow thanks to the acting. The cool-as-a-cucumber thing works well in action, but there are so many moments that are more quiet and that have potential for him to do something extra, add something to this character who is just kind of plain. And he doesn't.
And honestly, that does bother me. He's got no excuses, he's the producer and with a good director, who he's worked with before. He could do so much more with this role. Instead he just does his usual. Whoopdedoo. Moving on.
Kareena gets the same complaint. I kept waiting for there to be more backstory, something more interesting added to her role, but since there wasn't anything, and it was good, but it wasn't anything beyond that. There's also no thought put into the romantic angle; the two fall in love somewhere along the way, I guess, and the film flirts with the idea that Vinod meets a lot of sexy dangerous women in his line of work (Bond style) but neither of these things are contrasted or expanded upon. What makes Kareena's character special? The script gives us very little to build off on.
The problem with the film isn't that it's horrible; it's extremely competently made, and has things in that are extremely commendable. The use of foreign locations is always great, and fits the story as it progresses. The camerawork, editing and action sequences are great, and there are some definite stand-out scenes, like the scene where the scene cuts back and forth between present and a flashback of Vinod's previous encounter with a certain individual, or the single-shot shoot out, accompanied by a song. There's plenty of stuff here where you're forced to just go, "wow, that's cool". The song sequences don't jar, either, and are very well used within the context of the plot. There are multiple good elements and that's partly why this film is so aggravating to me.
Sriram Raghavan had a million pieces moving in the way that the plot came together in Johnny Gaddaar, and delivered a more simple but good thriller in Ek Hasina Thi. He knows his film references, but he's usually not bogged down by them - the story moves forward and juggles different elements. In here, the plot is just not as interesting, and not as complex. Unlike EHT where you're simultaneously disturbed and cheering the main character on, in here I found myself with barely any lukewarm emotions towards any of the characters, good or bad. I've seen other reviews mention the absolute lack of humour, and concur - this film certainly needed it, especially when it could use Saif's in delivery.
Were my expectations just too high? I don't think so. I just know what everybody involved is capable of, and rather than giving their everything, it seemed they put together something that is competent and has thought put into it, but is lackluster as a whole. I keep wondering about scale; perhaps Agent Vinod would've been better with one or two less locations, one or two less bad guys or characters, maybe 30 or so minutes chopped off the running length. Maybe that squeezing down of the scale would've allowed for tighter plot, better characters, and less of this hollowness of the grand scale variety.