RRR is a 2022 smash hit movie from India that has also been playing some multiplexes here and around the world. I would describe the basic feel of it as the most joyously over-the-top parts of American John Woo movies like HARD TARGET and BLACKJACK multiplied by the PREDATOR handshake, wrapped in the brotherhood and gravity defiance of FAST FIVE, sprinkled with the animal companionship of THE PROTECTOR, and fueled by a couple musical numbers and a show-stopping dance off against a snobby rich white guy. In other words, a strong summary of humankind’s greatest artistic achievements to date.
The title reportedly stands for “Rajamouli, Ram Charan, Rama Rao” – the names of the director and stars – though it says “Rise Roar Revolt” on the English language opening credits. Writer/director S.S. Rajamouli’s last movie was BAAHUBALI 2: THE CONCLUSION, which I also heard superlatives about and still want to see. But you know, if I was gonna watch parts 1 and 2 that’s a six hour commitment, so I didn’t get around to it. But I’m so glad I listened to the hype this time, because RRR is incredible! I kept thinking my mask was gonna slip off because I was grinning so wide.
Keep in mind I’m not at all familiar with Indian cinema, so this is my complete newbie’s view. I won’t pretend to be knowledgeable about this cinematic tradition, or any of the historical, cultural or propagandistic aspects of the movie. This is a Telugu-language one, if that means anything to you. It’s a fictional story based on historical figures, with a very long disclaimer about that at the beginning, followed by a second disclaimer listing which animals were not harmed and which were CG.
N.T. Rama Rao Jr. (RAMAYANAM) plays Komaram Bheem, a revolutionary from the Gond tribes who was one of the leaders of a rebellion in the 1930s, and Ram Charan (NAAYAK) plays Alluri Sitarama Raju, who waged an armed campaign against British colonial rule in response to tribal communities not being allowed to move freely through forests. RRR looks at them earlier in their lives, but still turns them into fantastical tall tales – or at least John Matrixes – and gives them a fictional heroic bloodshed style friendship that’s very fun to watch, especially since it’s often underlined with bombastic songs about how it’s a friendship between a raging storm and an erupting volcano and shit like that. Like the great training montage songs of our culture, RRR’s lyrics evoke iron, embers, burning hearts, shaking the earth, lions, bulls, horses, scorpions, dragons and falcons, and meetings between East and West. And that reminds me that the two characters are compared to water and fire, and at least once their flesh morphs into actual water and fire to emphasize that metaphor.
The story hinges on a little girl named Malli. In the opening scene, members of the Gond tribe welcome the British governor Scott Buxton (motherfuckin Ray PUNISHER: WAR ZONE Stevenson!) and his wife Catherine (Alison Doody, who played the traitorous Nazi collaborator in INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE). Malli sings a song and paints henna for Catherine, who gives her parents two British quarters. They accept it, thinking it’s a gift, when in fact it’s payment to buy Malli “to put on my mantle.”
When Malli’s mother stops the car and begs for her daughter back, a British soldier is about to shoot her, but the governor gets out and stops him. Oh, thank God – cooler heads have prevailed.
PSYCHE! Actually he makes a speech about all the care and expense put into the manufacturing and shipping of English bullets, costing almost a pound, and shouldn’t be wasted on “brown trash,” so the soldier bashes her with a piece of wood instead.
First of all, I didn’t know that the great Ray Stevenson was gonna be in this as the evil Caucasian, so that was exciting. Second, this is a hell of a Just How Evil Is He? intro. I think it still counts as that even though the price of bullets thing is brought back a couple more times, again by him and then thrown back at him by his victims. Sort of his “and you can take that to the bank,” you might say.
Bheem is introduced as the ultimate “tribal” and badass man of nature. He’s a hairy-chested man who smears himself with blood and runs barefoot through the forest to attract a wolf, accidentally summoning an enormous tiger as well. He manages to snare the tiger in some nets which he lifts by pulling on ropes like Hercules pulling on chains, and he roars into the tiger’s giant mouth. But after drugging the animal unconscious he apologizes and calls him “brother.”
As wonderful as that scene is, it’s child’s play compared to Ram’s introduction. He’s one of many cops working at a British police outpost that becomes Benghazi times fifty after arresting a revolutionary leader. It appears that they filmed hundreds of extras and then digitally expanded the crowd by many more thousands. The captain or chief or whatever wants one particular guy in the crowd to be arrested, so Ram volunteers for the job by super-leaping over the fence and just plowing through the crowd spinning around and bashing dozens of people in the head with a wooden club. Eventually he gets buried under an enormous pigpile (honestly, very much deserved) but he’s able to He-Man his way out of that and do a bunch of parkour over various structures and platforms to get to the guy and drag him back through the crowd to arrest him.
This is the baddest guy ever, a human T-1000, also extremely handsome, with great hair, and better at wearing sunglasses than almost anyone who ever lived, to say nothing of his most distinctive feature (his glorious mustache). But he focuses all those resources on being a cop helping the colonists keep his own people down. It’s very uncomfortable. The kicker is that doing such a good job only makes his superiors fear him, and in the next scene he has to contain his rage as they award commendations and promotions to two white guys who didn’t do shit that day.
And yet he keeps trying to impress them. When it’s determined that an unknown warrior from the Gond tribe has been sent to recover Malli, Ram volunteers to be the Tommy Lee Jones who goes looking for him. Little does he know they’re gonna become BFFs.
The awesometaciousness of the meet-cute between these two is gonna be hard to do justice to in the mere medium of written communication. It happens when Ram is on a bridge above a train that crashes and explodes, and a little boy on a boat below is surrounded by flames. As he tries to figure out how to save the kid he sees Bheem in the crowd below, having no idea that’s the guy he’s searching for. But he seems to recognize on his face that he too is trying to figure out a rescue plan, so he points to him and makes some hand gestures that apparently do communicate the plan – Bheem seems to know exactly what Ram wants him to do.
And that involves a motorcycle, a horse, and a rope that the two use to leap off of the bridge from opposite sides, basically bungee jumping and counterbalancing each other, snatching the kid, passing him back and forth. Also it’s worth mentioning that Ram chooses to carry a huge flag with him and toss it to Bheem, who wraps himself in it and is saved from the fireball he swings into.
The reason I mentioned the PREDATOR handshake in the opening paragraph is that after they’ve thrown the kid safely to the ground they swing toward each other like circus acrobats and their hands clasp with exactly that vibe. And then they drop to the water and there’s an almost impossibly awesome shot where they’re underwater with the burning train behind them walking toward each other in slow motion to high five. When they do it cuts to them on the surface shaking hands again. And everything I’ve described so far happens before the title even comes up! This is a three hour movie that continues to reach those types of highs over over again.
That length is, as I understand it, pretty standard for Indian films, and as I mentioned, has been intimidating for me in the past. I don’t know if this is standard, but in this case it’s cool because it’s pretty much structured as one great movie with its sequel immediately following. It felt like we had to be at the climax, but couldn’t possibly be nearing the 3 hour mark, during the huge battle that unfolds after Bheem and friends ram a truck through the gates of the governor’s mansion during a party and the truck skids sideways and launches a Noah’s ark worth of wild animals (see disclaimer) to terrorize all the rich colonialists. It’s more exciting than many action movie finales, but when it wraps up it leaves the loose thread that Ram has revealed himself as a cop and fought against his best friend Bheem.
At the Regal theater where I saw it there was no intermission, just a quick flash of a card that says “InteRRRval.” Then the story begins again explaining Ram’s background, with a major reveal that changes our understanding of what’s going on and the stakes of the whole thing. And what’s great about the stakes of the whole thing is that it’s about uniting people of different backgrounds and rising up against oppressors but on top of all of that it’s about “oh man I hope these two can somehow work this out and still be friends.”
SPOILER in this paragraph only: I like that it’s a double undercover story. In the first half Bheem and Ram are both hiding their missions and don’t know that they’re enemies. In the second half Bheem knows that Ram is a cop but doesn’t know it’s in the capacity of a revolutionary sleeper agent who has infiltrated them in order to get weapons for his village. So they actually aren’t on opposite sides, and the conflict becomes whether or not Ram will still betray Bheem to maintain his cover and achieve his ultimate goal.
There’s so much wonderfully crazy shit in this movie I can’t really give it all away, so I’ll list some favorites. I like when Bheem steps on a motorcycle to pop it up into the air (which would be a cool trick if it was a skateboard), catches it and swings it around as a weapon, then throws it as a bomb. I like when Ram is imprisoned and grows his hair long (starting to look like Bradley Cooper, I thought) and they hang him from chains so he just does pull-ups to get even more awesome. So they smash his legs, but when Bheem breaks him out he carries him on his shoulders and runs around and they fight everybody like a kung fu version of the Doubleman in EL TOPO. (Even better: this was set up earlier when they would do shoulder rides for fun.)
One reason I’m glad I saw it in a theater is that they had the sound cranked up really loud and the music is so intense – lots of orchestral bombast, lots of chanting, lots of un-self-conscious rocking out. Though the musical style is totally different, at times it made me think of the way Dario Argento and Ennio Morricone sometimes used music. I think this is something really appealing about the cinema of other cultures because it’s so rare here – the willingness to just go completely mega on every aspect (music, action, emotion, villainy) without fear or apology. I think the closest we come to this in large scale Hollywood movies would be the FAST AND THE FURIOUS series, where we do get a certain amount of un-deflated melodrama, fight brotherhood and rebellion against quasi-realism in action scenes. Even there it’s started to be peppered with more and more winks and jokes.
Not that it matters, but it’s also possible there’s a tongue-in-cheek aspect to the absurdity here that I don’t get. I say that because I’m a fan of ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER for putting an American historical figure into a ridiculous situation and taking it very seriously. It knows it’s funny but it’s not a comedy, and that’s what’s great about it. It’s possible that for those familiar with these figures from history, seeing them as action heroes has a similar appeal. But I can only speculate.
Either way, this is some of the coolest shit I’ve seen a long time. There’s so much fire, so much slow motion, so much agile leaping through the air, our two heroes hauling ass side by side, whether both on foot or one on a horse, one on a motorcycle. It’s so unrestrained in its cinematic embellishment of its heroes that at times it feels almost like a parody movie trailer in TROPIC THUNDER, except with the benefit of being a real movie with actual characters and a great story that I was totally involved in. Why not be so fucking awesome that it makes you laugh? That’s the best type of awesome.
If you’re able to see RRR now or in the future I give it my highest recommendation.