The first thing that needs to be said about the enormously anticipated movie of the year, Cloud Nine and Sun Pictures' Mankatha, directed by Venkat Prabhu, is that this is probably the film Ajith has enjoyed making the most. This being his 50th film, as the title scorches the screen, you expect fire-works. Fireworks there are aplenty: guns blaze, men are liberally killed and gangsters run all over the place. In the midst of it all sits Thala Ajith, a lazy grin on his face, leaning stylishly against a car or in a dilapidated warehouse, and such is his screen presence that you almost forget the gaping inconsistencies in the screenplay. Almost.
For Mankatha, as you discover around half an hour into the film, depends entirely on its swashbuckling hero/villain, who appears in every frame, and makes sure your attention stays on him, and only him.
The beginning is worthy of any mass hero: a terrified Faizal (Aravind Akash) is tied down in a desert by the police, who are going to kill him any second, when a four-wheeler practically flies through the air, lands on the ground, scattering sand, and Vinayak Mahadevan (Ajith) emerges, salt-and-pepper hairdo, lazy contempt in his eyes and a stylish swagger, all perfectly in place. Bullets and guns are in plenty, but somehow no one uses them. Instead, they fall like dominos as Vinayak smashes through them.
Cut to the setting of the story: Mumbai, bookies, betting in crores with the IPL as the background (except that cricket is not a part of the story), a local bigwig, Arumugam Chettiar (Jayaprakash), the owner of a ragged-looking theatre who is part of the bookies-racket, and many, many thugs. Vinayak's henchman Sumanth (Vaibhav) greedily eyes the cash that's heaped under his master's aegis. Together with his friend Mahath (Mahath), owner of a bar, Vinayak decides on a daring but rather bland heist. Roped in are cop Ganesh (Ashwin) and Prem (Premgi Amaren), a curly-haired, bumbling IT expert who seems to hack into any system within seconds.
In the midst of all this, having romanced the pretty Sanjana (Trisha), Vinayak gate-crashes the party, practically elbowing himself into the proceedings. He doesn't really bring in fantastic plot-twists, wonderful techniques or novel ideas to do away with 500 crores of money -- but who cares when he flips cigarettes like a pro, drinks like a fish and fights like Terminator?
And so goes the story -- Vinayak pits himself against the Special Force tasked to rout out the villains, and against its head, ACP Prithviraj (Arjun).
And a series of extremely predictable, sequences follow, infused with dashes of humour that work only sporadically.
Ajith, the star that he is, has carried practically the whole film on his capable shoulders -- and he's simply had a blast as the guy whose character sports negative shades. He utters four-letter cuss words with the ease of long practice, sleeps with random women, drinks like there's no tomorrow and lusts after money with a passion that sweeps us all away. And you wonder why no one ever gave him a role like this after Vaali. The man's screen-presence works wonders -- and here, he's also had a blast dancing.
By contrast, naturally, the rest of the cast is at least ten paces behind him, and it's not all their fault; their roles have been written that way. Arjun, Trisha, Lakshmi Rai, Andrea Jeremiah, Vaibhav, Jayaprakash, though they perform well, are all relegated to the sidelines. Premgi Amaren isn't really that funny, except once or twice. And that's a pity. Mahath and Ashwin don't really have much to do. And why on earth did Anjali accept a role like this?
Sakthi Saravanan's camera-work isn't scintillating, but it manages to keep you interested. Praveen K L and N B Srikanth's editing could not have been more effective. Yuvan Shankar Raja's Vilaiyadu Mankatha is mesmerising; he also plays around with some of his father's tunes for the background score, appropriately placed. The rest of the songs, while passing muster, suffer because of their silly placement. A story that revolves around a heist needs to be racy, keeping you on the edge of the seat, biting your nails. And this is where it falters.
Director Venkat Prabhu has made a name for himself on his ability to wring humour from his tried and tested cast. The problem is, with Ajith, the star, present, he's vacillated from giving him enough screen-space, yet retaining the hilarity. And it doesn't really work. An hour into the film and you wonder if the huge build-up so far is just a lot of hot air. The dialogues aren't funny, the sequences are very predictable, the gun-fights are silly at times, the heroines vanish if you blink, and it's only in the last ten minutes that the lost momentum re-surfaces.
If you're a veteran of heist movies, and especially our own mass-masala movies, you should be able to guess the climax within the first ten minutes of the film. It is, in fact, the behind-the-scenes montage that's by far the best in the movie.
If Mankatha works even just a bit, it's because of Ajith, whose charisma shines through. Watch it only for him. The rest really don't matter.