Dhaakad (India 2022)

Rating: ***
Review Date: 5/22/22
Cast: Kangana Ranaut

"It's no use living in the past. There's nothing there for you."

Agni (Kangana Ranaut) is a highly skilled and resilient Indian agent who was recruited as a young girl after her parents were murdered. She's an impulsive loose cannon who doesn't always follow orders and protocol, but she gets results. After a raid on a human trafficking operation is compromised, Agni is sent back to India as part of a disciplinary action, which triggers her repressed memories. Through some great coincidence (or not), she's assigned to gather intel on a mysterious crime lord who just happens to be the man who killed her parents. It doesn't take long for things to get personal, but can Agni survive long enough to get the revenge and closure she craves?

First of all, for anyone who is familiar with Hollywood and Hong Kong female action cinema, the film comes across as overly derivative and is stuffed with every possible cliché you can think of. It's easy to dismiss the film as high gloss exploitation garbage when compared to other works in other markets, which makes it difficult to view the film objectively. I have very little experience with Indian cinema, but my understanding is that a big budget female-driven action movie like "Dhaakad" is extremely rare in their film culture, and it has the potential to really shake things up and challenge the status quo. The director clearly wants to bring Hollywood to Bollywood with this feature, and it definitely has a renegade attitude.

Unfortunately, it feels like a vanity project for both the director and the star, and it could have benefited greatly from some refinement and restraint. The story is laughably formulaic, but the "girls with guns" genre admittedly has only a handful of variations to explore. "Dhaakad" attempts to use ALL of them. It's a great looking and well-made big budget spectacle, but it often feels like it's just a bunch of disjointed set pieces that are loosely strung together rather than a consistent and cohesive whole. Part of this may be due to the impact that Covid-19 had on the production, which was delayed by a couple of years. Being a genre fan, I live for action set pieces like these, but they also need to make sense in the bigger picture.

That said, I liked the action sequences a lot. The pacing and choreography are good, and the editing is decent for the most part. Kangana Ranaut gives an excellent physical and emotional performance, and I loved her rage and fierce intensity, even if she wasn't entirely convincing when up against considerably larger and stronger opponents. The gunplay is satisfying, if not gratuitously excessive, and the sound effects carry a lot of explosive weight. Digital blood is used A LOT, but it's fairly subdued and not overly distracting. Typically, foreign action films tend to be marred by embarrassing and unconvincing CGI effects, but that's the one area where "Dhaakad" shows some thoughtful restraint, and its visual effects are subtle and seamless.

While the action pieces are exciting, there are just as many embarrassing and cringe-worthy moments that could easily knock a star or two off of my rating. I'm curious if Indian audiences found these scenes to be as offensive and awkward as I did. One particularly awful and unnecessary scene has Agni posing as a sexy nightclub singer, which evokes memories of Moon Lee's cringe-inducing dance number from "Killer Angels" (1989), which was later cut out in various international markets. We're also treated to an awkwardly awful music video during the closing credits, which shows off more of Kangana Ranaut's talents while the villains rap along. I could have left the theater at this point, but morbid curiosity kept me watching until the end.

Much like "Haywire" (2012), "Dhaakad" feels like a love letter to Kangana Ranaut, which has its pros and cons. She's a beautiful woman and her tough-as-nails presentation is a joy to watch. She sports a pleasing variety of different looks and outfits, as well as some regrettably awful wigs. However, the film tries to do too much, and having her be the constant center of attention can become a bit overbearing at times. There's even a song in the film dedicated to what a bad-ass she is. The support characters have little depth or charisma, and the villains are laughably deranged and irredeemably evil. Agni's character also suffers an impossible amount of physical abuse throughout the film, and always manages to bounce back in top form.

Overall, the film reminded me of Hong Kong cinema during its decline in the mid to late 90's. It's a slick-looking production, but the material is weak, its internal logic is shaky, and the film has trouble finding its footing. More than anything, I admired and appreciated the spirit of the film, and it hit a lot of my sweet spots. I also love the fact that it's giving female representation and empowerment in a market that doesn't have a lot of that. It's an unapologetically violent and overindulgent exploitation film to be sure, but it's a genre that I love and it very much feels like something I would create if I had the means. That said, genre fans will probably enjoy it, assuming you can take it on its own terms and not compare it too harshly with all of the films that inspired it.