I’ve got a weird fascination with superhero movies from places other than the USA. Since X-Men (2000) and particularly Spider-Man (2002) demonstrated the possibilities of adapting comic books with a previously unthinkable level of faithfulness to the source material, superheroes have become a staple of Hollywood’s output. And with cash tills ringing in spades for all manner of four-colour-inspired heroics (as I write, The Avengers is already the third-highest grossing film of all time and still in theatres), it’s no surprise that overseas producers began to wonder at the possibilities. Some looked to their local comic properties for inspiration, such as with Hong Kong’s ‘a bit like Batman but played by Michelle Yeoh’ effort Silver Hawk. Elsewhere, filmmakers just borrowed wholesale from American films, as with Russia’s ‘Spider-Man with a flying car’ Black Lightning, or Thailand’s ‘Spider-Man… actually just Spider-Man’ cash-in Mercury Man. And of course Bollywood, boasting the biggest film industry in the world, was hardly going to miss out.
Their latest offering is Ra.One, a movie which borrows much of its visual style from Marvel’s Iron Man franchise, adds plot elements from Don and Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and then pads out the running time with some of the most excruciating comedy I’ve ever seen committed to celluloid. Now, I must confess I’m no expert when it comes to Bollywood films. The few I’ve seen have largely been on the basis of recommendations from this very website, or further exploration based on the involvement of a particular star. I think the last one I saw was Chandni Chowk To China, which combined Bollywood trappings with a kung fu movie starring Gordon Liu and then didn’t let him fight Mithun Chakraborty. What this means is that I’m probably not the person to put Ra.One into any kind of context, nor do I know if the ‘funny’ bits play better with their intended audience than they did with me. Certainly I’ve slogged through enough 70s and 80s kung fu comedies to know that humour doesn’t always travel well. By the time Ra.One was done, I was wishing I’d been watching the sort of flick that involves an hour of Simon Yuen hitting Lee Yi-min and Jack Long on the head.
This is one of those reviews where I’ve spent a long time procrastinating to avoid getting to the film in question. The filmmakers apparently had the same issue; before the action begins there a huge number of special thankses, endless product advertisements and an anti-smoking message. This appears to be par for the course in Indian movies these days, and I’m a little surprised Hollywood hasn’t followed suit. Having apparently drawn the line at a ‘let’s all go to the lobby’ ad, the film finally gets under way. It’s immediately obvious that it exists purely to show Shah Rukh Khan sporting a number the silliest haircuts in the world. SRK starts out the movie as the badass hero of a daydream being had by school kid Prateek (Armaan Verma), complete with long, flowing locks that wouldn’t be out of place in a shampoo commercial. The first ‘real’ SRK is Shekhar, Prateek’s dad, London-based videogame designer and horribly over the top comedy stereotype of the world’s least cool person. Despite this he has a doting and gorgeous wife Sonia (Kareena Kapoor), who is writing some kind of academic paper on male-specific profanities that gets mentioned once then dropped. I suspect this aspect of the film is one of the things that didn’t really translate well from Hindi.
The video game company Shekhar works for hasn’t been doing so well, so our hapless hero, in between attempting to look cool by doing Michael Jackson impressions, is tasked with coming up with the best game in history. He assumes it will naturally revolve around an appealing hero, but Prateek, swayed by the hip and edgy entertainment world of today’s modern now, says that only villains are awesome and cool. Shekhar isn’t convinced, but wants to do anything to convince his son (who is frankly a horrible spoiled brat) that Dad can be down with the kidz and in the hizzle. Do people still say hizzle? Anyway, to this end Shekhar and his team put together what in the movie is the greatest game of EVAR. In real-world terms of course, it would instantly destroy the company and render anyone who worked on it unemployable. It’s essentially a beat ‘em up with only two characters. The bad guy, Ra.One, is created by compositing the personalities of multiple villains from history into one terrible whole. Because let’s face it, no gaming acolyte wants to face the deadly kung fu prowess of Hitler and Stalin. Hmm, with that last sentence I think I’ve just thought of a much better movie than this one. Anyway, Ra.One (which sounds like the name of mythological figure Ravana, himself composed of multiple evil entities) can only be stopped by G.One, who helpfully also looks like Shah Rukh Khan.
Both Ra.One and G.One have small glowing devices in their chests, called arc reacto… I mean, H.A.R.T.s. These can be removed by either player, but neither the character or the H.A.R.T. can be destroyed individually – only when both are joined together. Which, of course, makes no damn sense, because all you have to do is hide your H.A.R.T. in a box or bury it under a ton of concrete and you’re suddenly indestructible. In doing some background reading on the film, I read that the H.A.R.T. is supposed to be what gives the characters their incredible powers. But since Ra.One doesn’t seem to be particularly inconvenienced by not having his H.A.R.T. for most of the movie, I can only conclude that is a bunch of crap. Much like the game and, indeed, the movie. Oh, and you can’t kill Ra.One – nor can he kill you – until the third and final level. Seriously.
So you’re playing as G.One, having selected him from your vast choice of one character. You must now do battle with Ra.One across a whole THREE LEVELS of pixelated action! Seriously, I’m pretty sure even the first generation of Pong had more than three levels. And to do this, you must first strap into a full-body exoskeleton game controller, one of which is apparently to be given away with every copy of the game. Either the company would be bankrupt in about two days, or the cost of this three whole levels of kung fu mayhem would be around five thousand dollars a copy. All because none of the filmmakers have apparently never seen or heard of the Microsoft Kinect.
In spite of all this, everyone seems very happy at the launch party. Prateek is thrilled to get an early try of the game which takes him all of four minutes to complete. Meanwhile the party has turned into an impressive dance number underscored by a truly terrible song. While I’m not massively versed in Bollywood movies I’ve probably seen more than most non-Hindi speaking Brits. The musical numbers are something one just accepts and generally speaking I quite enjoy them. If nothing else they tend to involve foxy Indian lasses in revealing miniskirts, which can offset even the most hideous Mithun Chakraborty plaid leotard. But in Ra.One’s spirit of throwing money at the production, the music is performed with the participation of US-based R&B singer Akon, and it’s awful. In the small sample of Indian movies I’ve seen, the songs usually serve to advance the plot in some way. Not so here; Kareena Kapoor has a very nice booty to be sure, and I have nothing but admiration for the way it goes bop bop bop, but having this described in musical form does nothing to move the story forward.
Prateek hasn’t quite finished his turn before having to leave, and so Ra.One (who is such an advanced program that he’s achieved a malevolent artificial sentience) vows to pursue him into the real world to finish the game. As luck would have it the games company has also developed technology that can create solid objects from wireless internet and cellphone signals. Not that they seem all that interested in this world-changing advance of science, and why would they be with the three levels of electronic mayhem they’re about to unleash on the gaming world? So Ra.One is able to use this technology to inhabit the life-size, fully articulated maquette of his character that has been built in the game designers’ lab. What, don’t all video games have this?
Realising that something is wrong, Shekhar’s assistant Akashi (Tom Wu) goes to the lab to check things out. Thus far Akashi’s purpose has been mostly as the butt of racist humour because he’s Asian, so everyone refers to him comically as ‘Jackie Chan’. This is apparently hilarious because Jackie Chan is also Asian, and that’s about as sophisticated as the humour gets. SRK apparently approached the actual Jackie Chan to play this character but was turned down. Can’t imagine why, it’s not like Jackie ever got upset over people who can’t differentiate between Chinese and Japanese ethnicities before (Cannonball Run, anyone?). Anyway, Ra.One kills Akashi and assumes his appearance. He was designed to do this, you understand, in case it was necessary in a game THAT ONLY HAS ONE OTHER CHARACTER. Shekhar, also aware there may be a problem, rushes home to make sure Prateek is safe, but he encounters Ra.One on the way. Shekhar tries to pretend it was he who left the game unfinished, but Ra.One realises he’s lying and kills him.
Following Shekhar’s funeral, a distraught Sonia announces she and Prateek are leaving London and returning to India. None too pleased, Prateek returns to his dad’s office and finds it destroyed and, more alarmingly, Akashi’s body is still there. So… I guess nobody stuck their head in there during however long it took for Shekhar to be found, autopsied and buried? Oops, again I’m giving more thought to the movie than the screenwriters. Realising from a pattern among the damage that Ra.One is loose in the real world, Prateek and his Dad’s other colleague Jenny (Shahana Goswami) bring the lifesize statue of G.One they ALSO built to life. Just in the nick of time too, as Ra.One has been staking out the lab and now pursues Sonia and Prateek to the airport. In a vaguely exciting sequence, Ra.One and G.One fight it out next to Battersea power station, and Ra.One is apparently thwarted. But of course he isn’t because his H.A.R.T. survives, which G.One picks up and decides to take with him. For some reason.
Anyway, Sonia reluctantly agrees to take G.One, posing as Shekhar, with her to India. At this point, the movie gets really bad.
After an interminable scene where G.One disguises his artificial nature by pretending to have lots of piercings (much to the delight of a screechingly offensive gay caricature security guard), the group arrive in India. They only make it as far as the parking lot before being attacked by a gang of hoods. This leads to one of those fight scenes where G.One uses a comically-reluctant Sonia as a weapon, a trope I don’t recall seeing since the Jet Li/Aaliyah classic Romeo Must Die. The scene also serves up a fleeting and pointless cameo for Rajinikanth, as the robot Chitti from the Tamil sci-fi film Endhiran. A long fx sequence from Endhiran went viral on Youtube not long ago and the film looked pretty cool. Maybe it has a scene explaining why Sonia thinks Chitti showing up is awesome, despite the fact he’s ostensibly a villain for much of Endhiran.
After this, the movie gets really really bad.
I don’t wish to dwell on what follows, as the scenes of comedic misunderstanding and vague courtship between Sonia and G.One are some of the most painful I’ve seen in a film of any nationality. Suffice to say, Prateek learns to accept that maybe his dad was awesome and cool after all. Which is great since all it took was Shekhar dying, and untold damage and misery caused by the artificial supervillain Prateek unleashed on the world. But I’m really glad you’re feeling better, Prateek, you obnoxious, bowl-haircutted little shit. We’re essentially killing time until Ra.One (now played by Arjun Rampal) finally shows up again on Prateek’s birthday. He wants his H.A.R.T. back despite being invulnerable without it, so he kidnaps Prateek and brainwashes Sonia to hijack a train. Because another part of the game involved him having mind control powers, despite (again) THERE ONLY BEING ONE OTHER CHARACTER. It falls to G.One to stop the train, rescue Sonia, get Prateek back and complete the third and final level of the game, so that please God the movie can end and we can all go home.
Many aeons hence, when the great scholars of the future come to write their definitive treatise on the worst superhero film ever made, I assume that Ra.One will be somewhere near the top of the shortlist. Sure, it doesn’t have the thudding boredom of the Reb Brown Captain America films (see! Captain America take his cat to the vets!), or the bizarre wrongheadedness of Kathy Lee Crosby as Wonder Woman. It may not feature awful things being done to beloved characters à la the Joel Shumacher Batman films or Catwoman. And try as he might, Shah Rukh Khan can’t approach the hideous, someone-please-just-punch-him smugness of Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern. Or Blade: Trinity. Or X-Men Origins: Wolverine. But good gravy, Ra.One goes down hard. It may even be worse than Hong Kong singing duo The Twins’ truly abysmal Protégé de la Rose Noire, which is terrible but only 91 minutes long (though you do feel every last one of them).
The sad thing is, it’s not from lack of effort. An absolute shit-ton of money went into every aspect of Ra.One with the possible exception of the script. Multiple post-production companies worked on the film’s elaborate special effects, sound design and inevitable conversion to 3D. The Ra.One and G.One costumes were created by Robert Kurtzman, formerly of K.N.B. EFX Group in Hollywood. OK, so they look like grey rubber body condoms, but they apparently weren’t cheap. As previously mentioned the producers sprung for international musicians as well as the rights to soul classic ‘Stand By Me’, thus enabling them to commit terrible crimes against music, Ben E. King and anyone with functioning ears. And shooting an elaborate action sequence in and around Barbican and the City, the very heart of London’s business district, is ferociously complicated and expensive (trust me; I work here).
It’s not like there aren’t seeds of a good idea in here somewhere. Sure, the composite computer-generated villain might not be original (take 1995’s Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe stinker Virtuosity for example), but it’s not a terrible premise for this kind of whiz-bang effects movie. But all of the other borrowed elements simply point out you could be watching better films. The artificial surrogate father figure and main characters’ heads-up displays are straight out of Terminator 2. Shah Rukh Kahn had already played dual roles – one meek, one badass – in Don, which means you could be spending your three hours watching Don. Every time one of the not-an-arc-reactor-please-don’t-sue-us H.A.R.T. devices appeared, I fervently wished I was watching the Iron Man films (which have a combined running time about the same as Ra.One). I experienced a similar feeling watching Mercury Man, given just how much that film steals visually from Spider-Man. But that at least had some sweet kung fu and a genuine transgendered kickboxing legend to fall back on. When Ra.One’s true face reminded me of Dr. Doom in the awful Tim Story Fantastic Four movies, for a split second I craved to be watching one of those… and that’s when I knew all was lost.
That’s really about the best summation I can give of Ra.One, both the character and the movie; it made me wish I was watching a movie with Jessica Alba in it. Truly there are no limits to its evil.
Release Year: 2011 | Country: India | Starring: Shah Rukh Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Arjun Rampal, Shahana Goswami, Tom Wu, Priyanka Chopra, Satish Shah, Armaan Verma, Dalip Tahil, Sanjay Dutt, Rajnikanth | Screenplay: David Benullo, Kanika Dhillon, Niranjan Iyengarl, Shah Rukh Khan, Mushtaq Sheikh, Anubhav Sinha | Director: Anubhav Sinha | Cinematography: V. Manikanandan, Nicola Pecorini | Music: Vishal Shekhar