No amount of depiction of SS Rajamouli’s action sequences in “RRR” could ruin the experience of seeing them for yourself. For example, to say that NT Rama Rao Jr.’s hero Komaram Bheem swings a motorcycle over his head like a laundry bag full of dry socks sounds ridiculous. But when you see Bheem do that, you accept it as part of a wide range of his capabilities.
This scene takes place long after Ram Charan’s Alluri Sitarama Raju has leapt into an angry mob of workers, fighting his passion to capture a man his boss demands to be arrested. Calling it a battle barely covers all the femur fractures and skull crushing necessary for Raju to succeed in his task.
Even saying that leaves out the acrobatic precision that Charan engages in this nearly 10-minute sequence. Rajamouli delivered “RRR” in a way that guarantees words will fail in his power of vision. That goes even for discussions about its three-hour, seven-minute runtime, 40 minutes of which elapse before the title card first appears. None of this amounts to filling.
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Simply put, “RRR” is one of the best action blockbusters you’ll see this summer. That might seem like bold talk in a movie scene currently dominated by “Top Gun: Maverick,” another action piece that uses its nationalism on its star’s severed biceps. In terms of earnings, “Maverick” is dominating the domestic box office and is closing in on the third highest-grossing film of 2022 on the global box office charts, the Chinese feature film “Water Gate Bridge”.
“RRR” may not achieve similar economic success, though its $72 million budget makes it one of the most, if not the most expensive, Indian films ever made. Perhaps that doesn’t matter in the larger scheme of things, as it employs the similar strategy of mass appeal as Tom Cruise’s latest extravaganza while tapping into the fervor of cultural pride.
“RRR” is a film made in Telugu overdubbed in Hindi for its showing on Netflix. In English, the acronym for the title stands for “Rise, Roar, Revolt”, raucous expectations related to the pace, spectacle and explosion that Rajamouli exceeds.
When we don’t see our heroes in action during the 40-minute cold opening, he’s setting the terms for the conflict to come. And when they’re not fighting or running down the roads together, with Bheem on his motorcycle and Raju on his horse, they can be singing.
Rajamouli delivered “RRR” in a way that guarantees words will fail in the potency of his vision
The crown jewel on the bright side of the story, before their friendship falls apart – which is not a spoiler – is the dance number “Naatu Naatu”. This is Bheem and Raju’s response to a racist Brit’s claim that Indians are clumsy and uneducated, demonstrated by jumping a few Eurocentric dance steps, hitting him and all the other whites around him.
Eventually, all the pompous white guys crumble, leaving Bheem and Raju as the last men dancing – and furiously at it.
“RRR” opens its arms to bring various aspects of the summer blockbuster into its bear hug: it’s an action masterpiece that’s also a musical.
It is an anti-colonial commentary whose heroes validate the struggles of pardo people around the world while distinctly extolling Indian pride. It’s a warm bromance, where the platonic friendship between the two main characters is treated with more tenderness than the warmth they show towards their romantic interests.
It’s also transparently nationalistic, proven by its first major action sequence, culminating in one of its heroes wrapping himself around India’s pre-independence flag to protect himself from a scorching wall.
In case it passes over our heads for most of its three hours, the final musical number, “Sholay,” punctuates it with a wild and brilliant dance tribute to India’s revolutionary heroes. “Fly that flag we gave our lives for,” sings its refrain. “There’s an iron man on every lane and in every house. (Not everything about the film’s release was flawless. When the film was released in India earlier this year, it omitted a Kannada translation. And “Sholay” was panned. for omitting Mahatma Gandhi from his gallery of revolutionary icons.)
Jr NTR and Ram Charan attend ‘RRR’ movie hit party on April 06, 2022 in Mumbai, India. (Prodip Guha/Getty Images)The protagonist of Rama Rao Jr. and Charan’s are named after two true revolutionaries of the pre-independence era, though, as a wordy disclaimer emphasizes before the film begins, their adventure in the early 20th century is entirely fictional. This may be to quell concerns that the public unfamiliar with Indian history might see this as fact, as opposed to an exaggerated trifle that is as true as “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man” or “Abraham Lincoln, Huntsman Vampires”.
“RRR” features Charans Raju as an Indian police officer working for the British security forces, and his focused brutality is driven by an obsessive desire to rise through the ranks, regardless of the dozens of fellow countrymen he must hurt or betray to earn this achievement.
But that doesn’t seem possible until he’s given a mission to track down a man intent on harming the region’s British governor, Scott Buxton, played by Ray Stevenson.
The mission that Raju’s quarry is carrying out doesn’t matter to him — but rather to the audience, whose first performance to the governor and his wife Catherine (Alison Doody, best known for playing Nazi villain Elsa Schneider in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”) “) shows the Buxtons tossing some coins to a villager to make up for the escape with their daughter, Malli (Twinkle Sharma).
If there’s one fact that “RRR” preaches at home, it’s the monstrosity and barbarism of white colonization. In this scene, Catherine sees the girl as a trinket – “I want to have this little package in our fireplace,” she whispers to her husband, who has just arrived from killing all the ungulates in the region. When Malli’s mother throws herself in the path of the governor’s motorcade, Scott delivers a pompous speech to his soldiers that declares that the lives of his brown subjects are worth less than a bullet.
But Malli is a member of the Gond tribe and is under the protection of that people’s unstoppable “shepherd”, Bheem, who has a reputation for never giving up until his lost lamb is returned to the fold. Raju and Bheem’s first meeting is a literal clash between fire and water, but moviegoers awash in Marvel superhero movies also recognize it as good old-fashioned teamwork. Neither of them knows who the other is when they collaborate to save a child, swinging together over a river that has caught fire.
Victory in battle quickly creates an intense friendship between the men that, as the film’s first major musical number foreshadows, is destined to end in bloodshed.
When Americans complain about feeling every minute of a long movie, they’re not imagining Rajamouli’s interpretation of that expression. His screenplay, a collaboration with his father, V. Vijayendra Prasad, fills each sequence with feeling while skipping details that would explain any inconsistencies that might stumble his main characters’ stampede toward an emotionally difficult juncture.
This trusts audiences to understand that he’s crafting a saga by heavily emphasizing viewing and delighting in the show rather than telling, a style he honed in his previous hits, 2015’s “Baahubali: The Beginning” and its sequel to 2017 “Baahubali 2: The Conclusion”. “If you’ve absorbed these wonders, you might not be surprised by some of Rajamouli’s narrative structural choices in this one.
American action icons might appeal to their gun show, but “RRR” lives up to that image and elevates it with stunts reliant on real musculature.
But seeing them is not a prerequisite to understanding “RRR”. All that is needed is an appreciation for the director’s aptitude for handling visual chaos with the delight and vigor of an orchestra conductor. Rajamouli is a cinematic sensualist, something little seen or appreciated in the action genre. It’s one thing to interrupt an elaborate Bridgerton-style formal affair with an armed zoo and another level to present you as a whirling dervish of fireworks, water, gymnastics, and CGI magic.
Even the dangerous effects are sculpted to accentuate the physicality each man brings to his role. The trailer gives us a taste of that, with photos of Rama Rao Jr’s brick house physique. and the enviable glow in Charan’s mane augmented by rippling flames. Cruise and other American action icons might appeal to their gun show, but “RRR” lives up to that image and elevates it with stunts reliant on real musculature.
Rajamouli liberally employs computer magic and wire work throughout the “RRR”; the face-down tiger and wolf Bheem wearing nothing but short shorts are as real as that motorcycle he stomps to a stop before tossing it into the air. But there’s a lot in the movie that can’t be faked, like the unrealistic movements of the stars in the battle scenes.
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All this somehow makes their history-inspired fabrication seem genuine and universal, crowning the philosophy of ideals that make the common man super. “Our friends came, so play the drums/Together we sing and we dance and the world rocks with us,” read the lyrics to “Sholay,” a rare moment on “RRR” that doesn’t require exaggeration.
Raju and Bheem’s individual and combined power is not explained by exposure to gamma rays or other cosmic forces, scientifically designed serums, or elite government training. Whatever extreme feats of strength, agility and dexterity they demonstrate are the result of years of exercise putting pressure on the weight of their people’s pride and the epic myth that infuses Indian culture. The references are specific, of course, but they leave the door open for the world to connect to the energy of the fable.
“RRR” is playing in theaters in New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and on Netflix.
Correction: After publication, the distributor clarified that “RRR” was released in hundreds of their native Telugu theaters and is still playing in select cities.
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