After flexing his muscles in over-the-top action dramas, thrashing countless baddies in single menacing blows and flaunting his super-cop powers, Akshay Kumar shifts gears and opts for a subtle, more intelligent make-over, instead.
And, it works. Stupendously.
Based on a series of events that occurred in the 1980s, director Neeraj Pandey weaves a story around a notorious gang of conmen, who made a living out of robbing corrupt politicians and businessmen across the country.
They would target rich tax defaulters and convince them they were officers of the Indian government’s intelligence bureau and terrorise them into surrendering their illegal money stash.
The victims would never lodge a complaint as it would unnecessarily broadcast their illegal activities, leaving the gang to enjoy their inglorious adventures unharmed.
‘Special 26’ journeys through the past and present, but never in a large sweeping shifts, only to unveil the clever strategies of the team of four, who live in different cities and lead extremely normal lives, only to be jolted into action for occasional thievery.
Once their leader identifies a target, a phone call is made to determine the destination.
Soon they set out, dressed in geeky formals and armed with rickety files, to raid the dishonest officers' homes and swiftly make way with their illegitimate wealth.
But, not before rebuking them with a few punches and slaps.
And when the deal was done, they would quickly pack up, change outfits, bid their farewells and travel back to their home-base.
With just a handful of media reports to reference, Neeraj has invested immensely in fleshing out the "real story".
His attention to detail is admirable, with each frame meticulously designed to capture the 1980s. Not a single car, scooter, bus or costume is out of sync. And that’s an impressive feat, considering only very few filmmakers are credited with such insights.
The humour is pitched perfectly, without any unnecessary buffoonery that Bollywood has slowly turned accustomed to.
It’s only the romantic interludes that appear unnecessarily lengthy and a failed job angle that’s carelessly unimaginative.
A tighter cut on the editing board, with no romantic pauses and unnerving song-and-dance tracks, would’ve gone a long way in sprucing up the narrative.
The show-time is further punctured with innumerable shots of many characters walking in slow motion and a pointless ‘American Idol’ styled audition towards the end.
A little more focus on the modus operandi, the forgery, the cases or even what really becomes of the loot they jointly accumulate, would’ve made for some interesting viewing.
Despite these obvious shortfalls, that occur when the sensibilities of commercial and realistic cinema are fused, Neeraj does pull it off, fairly impressively.
He keeps us on the edge of our seat, for most parts, tweaking the events to finally unveil a thrilling end. It could be obvious for some, but it’s an effort that isn’t entirely wasted. Revealing any more would be a spoiler.
As the notorious agent Ajay Singh in ‘Special 26’, Akshay relies more on his brain and less on the brawn, giving his notorious dealings a charming twist. His Ajay Singh is impeccably stylish, extremely sharp and exceptionally calculated. It’s only during the romantic scenes that he appears surprisingly awkward. And like Leonardo DiCaprio achieved in 'Catch Me If You Can', Akshay believes he will never be caught.
Anupam Kher also deserves applause for his versatility as P. K. Sharma, who is busy fathering several kids when he’s not robbing the rich. His wit is evident as he unthinkingly mouths, “the real power lies in the heart”, to evade being caught. The line eventually turns into a slogan for the group.
Despite a limited character sketch, able actors like Jimmy Shergill and Divya Dutt still manage to impact. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said about Kajal Aggrawal.
However, it’s Manoj Bajpayee who undoubtedly steals the show as the relentless intelligence officer Waseem Khan. From his incessant efforts to nab the infamous gang, to his endearing moments with his son and wife, to his open requests for promotion to his boss, Manoj paints Waseem in such vibrant shades.
After a remarkable debut with the political thriller ‘A Wednesday’, Neeraj follows it up with a notable ‘Special 26’.