In 2016 I attended an old friend’s wedding outside of Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of India’s Kerala state, located at the southern tip of the subcontinental peninsula. Verdant, lively and ridiculously picturesque, the area is also marked by a horror vacui-style graphic arts culture, in which every available surface seems plastered with placards, posters, or free-form street art. These range from Che and Marx banners associated with the dominant regional Communist parties, to gorgeously inked murals advertising local businesses, the chockablock aesthetic pairing well with the lushness of the landscape and the general feel of public theatre playing out along the busy streets. Not least among these were the ubiquitous glares of two beefy strongmen, who appeared not only in announcements for their own movies but copious other ads, some fresh and new, some bleached nearly clean by the bright sun and humid air.

These men turned out to be Mammootty and Mohanlal, the reigning action-star dons of the local Malayali cinema, although I later discovered that there were other, lesser lights who I was confusing for the two (including Dileep and Suresh Gopi). In the five intervening years I’ve been meaning to familiarize myself with at least a few of their movies, but until now remained thwarted, both by a lack of critical consensus on which of these were actually worth seeing, and a more general lack of access to the films themselves. Browsing Amazon Prime recently, I found that the platform’s already huge holdings of Indian cinema have expanded even further, encompassing a staggering trove of Malayali, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada offerings, among others (India has upwards of two dozen regionalized film industries, and trying sort them all out is enough to make your head spin).

My eventual selection was Lucifer, one of Mohanlal’s latest projects, which currently stands as the highest grossing Malayali film of all time, although it will likely soon be usurped, possibly by one of its two promised sequels. The film starts off in more complex territory than might be imagined for an action potboiler, with a twisted plot stretched out across the far reaches of a corrupt political party. P.K. Ramdas (Sachin Khedekar), the faction’s longtime head, has died unexpectedly, opening a power vacuum in a family situation already ripe for drama. Into this breach strides Stephen Nedumpally (Mohanlal), the adopted son and black sheep, who has recently returned after a mysterious multi-decade disappearance, taking up his time in the expansive charity shelter he’s constructed in the countryside. Himself an orphan, Stephen was drawn into the family as an adolescent, then spurned after his new sister blamed him for the death-during-childbirth of their mother, supposedly brought on by distress over the appearance of what she presumed to be her husband’s illegitimate son. Decades later, Priyadarshini (Manju Warrier) – now married to a sleazy political operator intent on installing her expatriate younger brother to the lead position over her – still nurses a grudge against Stephen.

This comes to a head in an early funeral scene, in which strings are pulled to keep Stephen’s motorcade away from the funeral. A true man of the people, he responds to this challenge by walking the rest of the way, a move prefaced by a majestic sequence of slow-motion lungi swashing as he ties the garment up around his waist for more breathability around the legs. Scenes like this, which amplify the character’s masculine swagger via form-bending displays of impressionistic grandiosity, help demonstrate the true utility of the film’s initial overtures toward the political thriller genre, which never really develop into anything substantive. Instead it’s kept at a low simmer, providing frisson as Stephen solves problems and dispenses with foes. It’s really only there as an undercurrent to this main action, providing some tinges of verisimilitude and vague gestures toward tension, a vaporous counterpoint for the surface level theatrics of brusque Russian drug deals and guileless assassination plots.

As so often is the case with Indian cinema, maximalism is a key characteristic. Clocking in at just under three hours, Lucifer is long. Perhaps not so much by local standards, although unlike many Bollywood extravaganzas, it’s not in service of a variety show-style presentation. There’s only one musical showpiece, a climactic one cross-cut with a violent nightclub showdown, and it’s anchored to an actual stage performance, involving a ringer rather than any of the main players. The length allows for some interesting flourishes, but for the most part the progression is less than inspired, eventually dipping into the kind of laborious table-setting familiar to viewers of modern American action cinema, where runtimes routinely top 150 minutes. That final showdown, in which a limber young sidekick fills in for the less-mobile Mohanlal, providing a dash of martial arts theatrics, confirms that nothing spectacular is going on here.

Lucifer is better when butting its baroque, Shakespearian aspirations up against the utilitarian aims of the straightforward actioner. Befitting the title, there’s a weird thread of Christian iconography running through the movie, which makes more sense if you’re aware that Kerala is one of India’s most religiously diverse states. Nearly 20% of the population practices Christianity, which has roots in the region dating back nearly two millennia. That doesn’t mean the references are entirely coherent. Mostly, they serve to establish Stephen as a figure of lawful evil who abides by strict codes, a bad guy for whom audiences can safely root. This suits Mohanlal’s star profile, as a former heel turned hero, a natural heavy who now gets to have it both ways, playing taciturn antiheroes whose amorality serves as a shorthand psychological profile. This entire angle culminates with Stephen name-checking and quoting Ezekiel 25:17 as he takes out an adversary, which means he’s actually quoting Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, for which Tarantino edited and expanded the existing bible verse.

It’s unclear if this is an intentional tribute or a shoddy act of borrowing, but the scene works anyway, like a too-obvious rap sample that still coasts by on pure verve. It helps that Mohanlal has a singular form of burly, humorless presence, elevating every scene he’s in, despite the fact that he barely emotes, acting exclusively through subtle gestures and weighty glares. It’s a model that might be copied by aging American action stars, who tend to push too hard to sell the believability of the scene, forced to punish their bodies to beat back the general momentum of time. Soft and flabby with huge arms and a commanding glower, Mohanlal forces the film to bend to accommodate to his pace, with slo-mo sequences that are absurd but also crisply balletic, particularly the one where he takes out a whole host of foes with a massive joiner’s mallet. As with some Tamil films I’ve seen, advisory bubbles pop up onscreen at the merest whiff of bad behavior, including when characters drive without a seatbelt. Mohanlal never wears a seatbelt.

Overall, Lucifer is less a fully satisfying experience than a spotty showcase for its star, who carries enough of the load to make it worthwhile. Sturdy enough to sell the ridiculousness, he draws together the shards of different potential films adhered together under his banner, even through a post-climax twist that seems solely designed to launch a sequel, sending the story off in a completely unexpected direction. Considering the initial setup, it’s almost impressive how far the film has wandered by this point, and how little this aimless digression has come to matter.

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