Kaiju Shakedown: Dhoom
Ten years ago, Abhishek Bachchan leapt a speedboat over a highway while shooting out the windshield of an 18-wheeler driven by the leader of a gang of bank-robbing pizza deliverymen—and the Dhoom franchise was born. Now, with three films under its belt, Dhoom is Bollywood's all-time top-grossing franchise, having raked in $122 million at the global box office with a collective budget of about $27 million. It stormed Turkey and China, was so popular in Nepal that local producers kept their own movies out of theaters to avoid the competition, and inspired a real-life bank heist.
The Dhoom movies are a lot like the Transformers films: big, dumb, crass, and capable of hoovering money from audiences' pockets into the producer’s coffers in a 500 mile-per-hour suck-stream. But whereas Michael Bay's babies will give you a headache, the Dhoom movies are actually fun if you approach them in the right frame of mind. Pretend that you’ve recently received a blow to the head, and you’re going to love Dhoom. This effect can also be achieved with large amounts of alcohol, doses of cannabis, or a deep self-awareness of your inner being. Let’s face it: you probably already know if you’re the type of person who can get behind a sequel whose theme song blares: “Dhoom again / We’ve gotta break the rules / And party all the time!”
Yash Raj, the studio behind Dhoom, is Bollywood’s Walt Disney (and in fact Disney tried to take them over in 2009), a manufacturer of family-friendly entertainment that specializes in Day-Glo color schemes, flat lighting, broad performances, and squeaky-clean morality. They’re more accustomed to making movies like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (95), a sweet romance that’s one of Bollywood’s all-time biggest hits, than an action flick about bad boys on motorcycles who deliver pizza and rob armored cars on their smoke breaks. But while the Dhoom movies are risky business for Yash Raj, for us they look like what would happen if Michael Bay directed Saved by the Bell on a budget.
Each Dhoom is bigger than the Dhoom before. Dhoom (04) runs two hours, cost $1.8 million to make, and earned $12 million globally. Dhoom 2 (06) runs two-and-a-half hours, cost $5.7 million, and earned $24 million. Dhoom 3 (13) runs three hours, cost $20 million, and took in an astonishing $86 million at the box office, playing 4,500 screens in India and 750 worldwide, including IMAX. It’s also the only one you need to watch. Although they're essentially globe-trotting buddy-cop flicks with a motorcycle fetish, what distinguishes the Dhoom franchise is that they’re producer-, not director-, driven, and Yash Raj studios has a cutthroat awareness of what works and what doesn’t, ruthlessly refining their formula from picture to picture until they perfect it with Dhoom 3.
In a bit of mercenary casting, Abhishek Bachchan, son of India’s biggest screen icon, Amitabh Bachchan, stars as Jai Dixit a no-nonsense cop, who recruits a motor-mouthed bike thief named Ali to help him take down the motorcycle marauders of the first Dhoom. The next two movies see this odd couple go after a jewel thief in Brazil during Carnival, and an acrobat-turned-criminal out to take down a Chicago bank (“We’re bankers. Everyone hates us,” one board member explains). Ali is played by Uday Chopra, son of Yash Raj founder, Yash Chopra, and brother of the studio’s boss, Aditya Chopra. Together, they solve crimes, mostly by chasing people on motorcycles. Abhishek inherited his dad’s deep voice, but otherwise he appears to be dead, with someone off-screen pulling strings to make his limbs twitch in a vaguely lifelike manner. The only way he expresses emotion is by varying the length of the five o’clock shadow that clings to his face like moss on a boulder. Chopra, on the other hand, is all manic high energy, throwing himself into production numbers with an enthusiasm that becomes downright creepy, as he dances around a woman trapped inside her stalled car, leering through the window like a lunatic and humping his pelvis against her doors.
A Dhoom movie lives or dies by its bad guys, and unfortunately in the first movie it’s John Abraham, whose chiseled abs are more expressive than his face. Also annoying is Abhishek’s wife, Sweety (Rimi Sen), whose midriff appears to be allergic to clothing and who gets the lascivious musical number, “Dilbar Shikdum,” during which the camera leers at her curves like a filthy old man, leaving drool puddles on her thighs. With an eye on the bottom line, Dhoom 2 jettisoned everything that didn’t work in the first movie, including Rimi. She appears briefly at the beginning, pregnant this time, but the producers simply cut her out of the film when the movie moves to Brazil and we never hear from her again. The same thing happens with the love story between Abhishek and an old flame turned police inspector, Bipasha Basu. The two have zero chemistry on screen, so when the movie decamps to Brazil, she’s transformed, with no explanation, into her free-wheeling twin sister (played by the same actress) who falls for Uday, with whom she’s able to actually generate some heat.
The sequel's greatest (and most expensive) coup is Hrithik Roshan. One of the biggest stars in India, and certainly Bollywood’s strongest dancer, here he plays Mr. A “the smartest and coolest thief in the world.” Determined to pull off a pattern of jewel heists that spells out his initial across the face of the planet, he steals the crown jewels from Queen Elizabeth II who is, inexplicably, taking them across Namibia by train. We’re told he’s a master of disguise, which is good because it’s impossible to tell when he’s actually in disguise, since it often consists of a do-rag and a mullet. Cast opposite him is Aishwarya Rai, Abhishek’s real-life wife (with whom he also has zero on-screen chemistry), playing a cat burglar who constantly refers to herself in the third person.
Within minutes of Aishwarya’s introduction, she’s playing a slow-motion game of basketball in the rain with Hrithik. From then on, Uday and Abhishek are relegated to the sidelines, and it’s The Aishwarya and Hrithik Show: the pair look directly into the camera, roll their eyes at the audience, disguise themselves as bearded midgets, and point guns at each other while molten tears erupt from their eyeholes, and their cars explode for no reason. They wear a delightful assortment of masks, skin-tight costumes, and compete to see who can expose the most cleavage. Gleefully self-aware, they strike every pose as if it’s the cover of a romance novel, and their every exit is a mic drop. There’s not a plot point that doesn’t get a musical sting or a sudden choral “Whoa!” When Aishwarya enters she gets a chorus singing “Sexy lady on the floor,” and right before the big final heist, the five stars unleash an exuberant all-hands-on-deck musical number.
Aiming to out-Dhoom previous Dhooms, the producers replaced their director (Sanjay Gadhvi) with the screenwriter of part one and two (Vijay Krishna Acharya), and no Dhoom ascends into a higher realm of ridiculosity than Dhoom 3. Sharing many of the same locations and plot points of The Dark Knight and The Prestige, this is a movie directed by Christopher Nolan and Joel Schumacher’s love-child who just got high on nitrous oxide and watched 16 Cirque du Soleil shows back-to-back. People enter scenes by smashing through brick walls on rickshaws, and exit by smashing through entirely new walls on the same rickshaws. Motorcycles transform into jet skis in mid-air. It is paradise.
This time, Abhishek and Uday are practically guest stars in their own movie, ceding the spotlight almost entirely to the bad guy, Aamir Khan. As a boy, evil bankers drove his circus-owning daddy (played by Jackie Shroff) to kill himself. Now, he has vowed revenge on the Chicago Western Bank, and he’s decided to bring it to its knees by opening The Great Indian Circus and robbing the bank’s branches in a series of flamboyant crimes involving tightropes, sky hooks, bags of cash dumped off high rises, masks, doubles, mountain climbing, graffiti, and (of course) motorcycles. He’s like a high-school overachiever turned bank robber.
Female co-star Katrina Kaif (whose Amazonian physicality would have made her an amazing Wonder Woman) tries to hold her own, but Aamir Khan blows everyone off the screen. Almost 50 years old when he shot Dhoom 3, Khan looks like a jug-eared, tap dancing bulldog with bow legs, but as he power-stomps the stage he reminds you of Jimmy Cagney in Footlight Parade. One of the immutable laws of Bollywood physics is that the star giving the best performance earns the most screen time, and Aamir practically cuts his co-stars completely out of the script through sheer force of will. Imagine The Dark Knight if Nolan had jettisoned boring old Batman and instead just kept the camera on Heath Ledger’s Joker, and then threw in some flashy musical numbers. It might not have made a lick of sense, but it would have been one hell of a ride.
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