The new Tamil-language film “Thunivu” is a lot of things packed into one movie. It’s loaded with kinetic action, there’s plenty of good humor, and (of course) there’s the occasional pulse-pounding musical number (often when you’re least expecting it). But more than anything, “Thunivu” is a heist film. It may be impossible to nail it down into one single category, but the heist genre is clearly baked into the movie’s DNA.
Written and directed by H. Vinoth, “Thunivu” surprises by seeking to be both a searing indictment of financial systems and institutions and unabashed big screen entertainment. Each are (mostly) effective, and Vinoth does a good job conveying both thrills and his message. Where the movie struggles is in weaving both aspects together. Suffice it say we’re left with what feels like a film of two very different halves.
“Thunivu” stars Ajith Kumar, a fascinating and electric lead who oozes charisma from his first scene till his last. The prolific actor and race car driver has appeared in over 60 movies throughout his remarkable 33-year career. Here he’s handed a meaty role that leans into his physicality, sly sense of humor, and overflowing swagger. He gives a fun (and at times delightfully over-the-top) performance that’s as playful as it is intense.
Vinoth wastes no time setting up and kicking off his elaborate story. The film opens with a gangster named Radha (Veera) meticulously laying out his plan to rob the privately owned “Your Bank” in the heart of Chennai. Within minutes he and his heavily armed crew storm the bank, taking out the guards and rounding up their hostages. But as they prepare to cash out, their plan is disrupted by a mysterious white-bearded man (Kumar) who takes out Radha’s men in a gloriously ballet of finely choreographed violence.
But this mystery man is no angel. He’s actually a gangster himself known as Dark Devil, and he has targeted the bank for his own well-hidden purposes. The police quickly gather outside led by their determined commissioner (Samuthirakani). Soon the tactical units arrives, a war room is set up, and snipers are placed on the rooftops. But with the help of his partner on the outside Kanmani (Manju Warrier), who is observing and feeding him information from a distance, the morally ambiguous Dark Devil stays one step ahead of everyone, including the audience.
As the high-energy, furiously paced first half steams forward, Vinoth introduces several more characters to help fill out his story. There’s a timid constable (Mahanadi Shankar), a cut-throat journalist (Mohanan Sundaram), a sleazy inspector (Bagavathi Perumal), and a crooked banker (John Kokken) just to name a few. Yet there’s never a doubt that Kumar is the centerpiece, and his Dark Devil drives the adrenaline-fueled, action-packed first 100 minutes.
But then the movie takes a surprising turn. The action is somewhat dialed down as Vinoth hits us with a slew of reveals, many through some rather lengthy flashbacks. It’s a bold but jarring change of pace that sees Dark Devil go from ruthless gangster to a roguish Robin Hood of sorts. Soon we’re talking about bank scams, mutual funds, and credit card debt. And suddenly the villains aren’t just gangsters. They’re also bankers, policemen, politicians, and the news media. In Vinoth’s story everyone has dirty hands.
The shift from full-throttled action to biting commentary isn’t the most graceful transition. But it’s hard not to appreciate the shots Vinoth takes at the various forms of corruption, especially from the financial sector. As far as other gripes, Nirav Shah’s cinematography is spectacular. But there are a handful of clips that are awkwardly sped up to the point of being distracting. And while Ghibran’s relentless score fits the movie, it can be a bit overpowering. I also wanted more of Manju Warrier. She’s a tough and fiery presence, but I wish she was given more to do.
But in the end those are small quibbles, especially for a movie that packs this much fun. “Thunivu” may not hit every mark, but I love it when a filmmaker takes big swings. Vinoth goes for broke, delivering a densely plotted, old-school heist movie that’s bursting with a fresh style and energy. He feeds a full course to those hungry for big action, and rewards those who patiently wait for his story to unfold. By the end there’s a good chance you’ll still have a few questions. I know I did. But for the most part Vinoth does a good job covering all his ground. The magnetic Ajith Kumar handles the rest. He’s a force of nature who commands the screen whether he’s cracking bones or cracking jokes. It’s just the kind of star power “Thunivu” needs.