Directed by S. S. Rajamouli
Starring N. T. Rama Rao Jr., Ram Charan, Ray Stevenson
One of the joys of exploring movies from different countries is encountering new cinematic languages. I buckled at the deliberative pacing of K-dramas before giving myself over entirely, and went into Shu Qi-starrer The Assassin assuming it was an action movie before leaving perplexed but intrigued. It’s strange, especially for a critic, to think “I don’t really understand what I’m seeing.” Yes, the image is crystal clear, of an extremely muscled man straining against the bonds of an ensnared tiger and screaming back into its roaring face, but nothing in my career of watching historical dramas has prepared me for this. Am I supposed to be registering some level of irony? Can they do this, even? And of course, subtly suggesting that I myself discovered RRR is a willful misguidance, as it came at the urgent recommendation of my QNA cohost Donovan – our own friendship highly reminiscent of Rama and Bheem’s, complete with underwater Predator handshakes.
RRR is technically historical fiction, but rings more familiar as fan fiction. Writer/director S. S. Rajamouli imagines a what-if scenario where two real-world revolutionaries became friends against the backdrop of conflict with the British Empire in 1920. I don’t know if this fanciful take on history provides the latitude for all that comes next, because the film isn’t a quiet, philosophical treatise on the nature of revolution. It begins suspiciously enough, with a scene of imperial treachery so grievous we can feel the manipulation on our narrowing emotional response. The British are so evil that they’re absurd, and we likely push against that manipulation. Moments later, however, we see a man fly over a barbed-wire fence to enter melee with hundreds, maybe thousands of rioters. He flies. He performs wild martial arts through this crowd, even forces people over a cliff like that great shot in 300. He’s every bit as hypermasculine as that similar celebration of male physique and determination, but there’s a literal world of difference.
As Donovan described it in a chat exchange, the depiction of men here is “wholesome,” rather than toxic. It’s so much about an epic friendship, about the courage and inner strength for individual bodies to resist the oppression of an evil empire. The sequences iterating on this theme will sound parodic on paper, but it’s the execution on screen that separates it from the closest American equivalents. 300 has been described as racist and fascist where RRR is earnest. We watch a man withstand spiky flogging as he sings a revolutionary ballad to the increasingly inspired crowd. 300 also lacked dance-offs, and the dancing in RRR is at once joyous and hardcore. I’ve never seen such frenetic, aggressive movement of the body while the face is alight with a winning smile. And while I detect the cultural significance behind many of these personally novel features, I’m having a hard time prescribing fixed meaning.
People don’t just fly through the air in American movies. We remember how Hollywood interpreted wuxia, by saying “these characters can fly and dodge bullets because, well, technically, they’re inside a computer program.” RRR’s playful relationship to the laws of physics ironically imbues the visual effects with weight, making this film a much-needed antidote to my recent blockbuster fatigue. We don’t have CGI Godzilla crashing against CGI King Kong but a man so angry he punches a tiger out of the air. Both examples are ridiculous, but the former is buttressed by horrendous exposition and the latter operates on a purely emotional logic. What I’m beginning to appreciate is that it isn’t a matter of simply choosing to do this correctly, because these instances of dazzling superhuman feats are the work of deliberate, careful filmmaking.
RRR is elastic in scope and scale, with a rich lens on epic Indian landscapes sometimes zooming in for goofy moments like an incriminating item flying out of Rama’s hand before it can implode the burgeoning friendship. Just the same, the action set pieces are enormous in scale but always punch in on moments of bloody innovation. An arrow punctures a tree and stops short of an enemy’s eyeball, only to be flying-kicked home. Bheema punches down on a motorcycle which flips in front of him like a hula hoop trick. There’s that unbelievable shot of Rama’s dad throwing off a shawl to reveal bandoliers of grenades. It’s here that I remember some of the epic movies I made videos about at the tail end of the YouTube channel, like Nomad: The Warrior and Mulan: Rise of a Warrior (The Warrior Queen of Jhansi, for the Warrior trifecta), and how those battles sometimes drifted into montage. Understandably, RRR has a much different tone and style of action, with no pitched battles between symmetrical forces (running down into the valley), but it’s specific with its “Oh, shit!” moments, rendering them in stunning clarity that nevertheless has you rubbing your eyes like “Did I just see that?”
And so importantly, the action sequences are the consequence of drama boiling over and finding no better expression. Rajamouli is careful with setups and payoff, and within a three-hour running time, both are given enough space and they resound with purpose. There’s something deeper running beneath the explosions and gunfire that ensures a propulsive forward movement. It’s only that sort of massive design sense that produces one of the best action set pieces I’ve ever seen, which recalls John Wick 3 and surely puts the latest Jurassic Park sequel to shame. It was for me an existential moment where I thought, “This is why I watch movies. This is why movies are made.” Like the whole of the film, it’s a maximalist spectacle that puts absolutely everything on the table. It would take a weekend with pause and frame control to absorb every detail with the brain, but the heart already understands.
Early on, we find Rama working the punching bag and he puts his fist through it before roaring like a barbarian in the lost, most convincing barbarian movie from the 1980s. He’s shirtless here, and the sight of Ram Charan’s rippling muscles and exquisite mustache had me thinking: this is the new standard for the word “sexy.” The dude is a fucking beast, but what of the scene itself, especially in the context of a movie? Distractingly homoerotic? Ironically hypermasculine? Well, I don’t know about any of that – it’s just awesome. But thanks largely to modern Internet “content,” the word “awesome” is a shorthand used to melt all sorts of things into one instantly accessible idea. It’s very tempting to describe the entirety of RRR as “awesome” and leave it at that, but instead I’ll insist that it’s awesome with reason, for a reason. These action sequences, whether combat or dance, have the texture of a fever dream, but are so intricately designed and brilliantly executed that in effect, they stir surprising emotions. You may not believe a man can fly, but you’ll understand why he must.