A screenplay and superstar in perfect tandem, it doesn't get better than this, applauds Sukanya Verma.
Nothing in Vikram Vedha happens without reason.
But nearly all the events in the story have already transpired when Pushkar-Gayathri's riveting drama about cops and crooks engaged in a moral jugalbandi begins.
We discover the movie over a course of reactions, realisations and retaliation -- a masterstroke that elevates a generic right versus wrong conflict into an irresistible study in perspective.
Vikram Vedha gets its inspiration from the Betaal Pachisi mythology in which Ujjain's virtuous King Vikramaditya sets out to apprehend a freakish phantom at the behest of a sorcerer.
On their way back to the palace, Betaal narrates a story to the King only to pose a riddle at the end.
Answering it will result in Betaal's escape and restart the cycle of detaining him all over again, but the king has an unsatisfactory response to all his conundrums.
This happens a good 25 times, hence Pachisi, till Vikram learns the truth about the sorcerer as well as Betaal's true nature.
Back in 2017, director duo Pushkar-Gayathri spectacularly contemporised the concept to create a rousing spectacle of face-offs between moral quandaries.
What made it cooler was a pair of leading men born to play the part.
When I first saw the acclaimed Tamil hit, I was blown away by Vijay Sethupati's chameleon quick emotional agility.
When I watched it again, R Madhavan's brash confidence taking a hit held my rapt attention.
Living up to these impressions was never going to be easy for either Hrithik Roshan or Saif Ali Khan.
But Hrithik's gift for putting his own spin on beloved characters, be it Vijay Dinanath Chauhan or Vijay Sethupati's has held him in good stead.
Saif grows into the part as does the deceit within and around him.
Quite like his wardrobe of polo t-shirts changing colour from pure white to smoke grey to charcoal grey, dangerously close to all black, like the one worn by his adversary Vedha.
While the Hindi remake retains the original's creators, technicians, treacherous twists, karmic repercussions, existentialist woes, Sam C S's thumping background music and grubby vibe, its two heroes have an entirely fresh take on the material.
Often the difference between an original and its remake is that of handloom and nylon.
The new Vikram Vedha doesn't have the earlier Vikram Vedha's raw, rooted swagger but it holds its own on the strength of wolf whistling stardom where even the sight of Hrithik's sandals and hand tossing kachori at a bunch of hungry Alsatians is bound to cause a frenzy among fans of robust masala.
Pushkar-Gayathri's 'if ain't broke, don't fix it' approach in a largely loyal remake seeks novelty by way of setting without losing the 'sur' of its engrossing original.
The action shifts from Chennai to Lucknow whose architectural charms and un-touristy facets lend Vikram Vedha's chases and brawls a spellbinding energy, one that P S Vinod's glossy camerawork duly captures alongside the ethical ambiguities amidst light, shadows and symbolism while Amethi born Manoj Muntashir's dialogues season it with local flavour.
There's something almost Shakespearean about the pursuit of judgement in Vedha's stories.
A line from Hamlet, 'Foul deeds will rise, though all the earth o'erwhelm them, to men's eyes' offers a profound summary to all the back and forth Vikram goes through before stumbling upon the unsettling truth.
When we first see him, catching up with colleagues cuts to coldly fired bullets as part of a staged encounter operation that he guiltlessly covers up in his good guy conceit.
When we first see Vedha, he pretty much offers himself to them only to narrate the first chapter of his flashback trilogy.
Vedha finds a justification for his actions in Vikram’s answers.
Vikram learns the importance of asking questions around Vedha.
Both have loved.
Both have lost.
Both are betrayed.
One's a bike nerd, another has a thing for Raj Kapoor's songs.
It's a fascinating equation between two people who can never become friends but well on their way to becoming soulmates in hell.
Meanwhile, unfamiliar (with the exception of Sharib Hashmi, Satyadeep Mishra) but compelling faces portraying good, bad and ugly men occupy Vikram Vedha's heavily male-dominated universe.
There a few chinks in its armour too.
The women are in a staggering minority and the romance between Vedha's kid brother and his childhood sweetheart, featuring a horribly miscast Rohit Saraf and clueless Yogita Bihani is one of the film's weakest, clumsiest, arcs.
Juggling between Vikram's wife and Vedha's lawyer, the lovely Radhika Apte does her bit as a woman caught in a crossfire. (See if you can spot Michael Palmer's Extreme Measures, a thriller about ethics among their bedroom reads.)
But it's Vikram's casual sexism, almost gaslighting his better half over a conflict of interest yet showing no qualms in exploiting her to gain information on Vedha that explains the deepening greys in his attire. Spiffy Saif nails these scenes.
Vikram's righteous arrogance reminded me of Amitabh Bachchan's cop in Aakhri Raasta.
He, too, (has daddy issues and) doesn't think twice before using his girlfriend to seek his mark's whereabouts.
Bachchan's wronged avenger from his 1986 double role resonates in Hrithik's towering aura and composed scorn as well.
Mostly though, Hrithik's Vedha is a feral, fierce beast going bonkers with the idea of settling scores and cutting loose. His item-esque song and dance turn in Alcoholia makes unhinged look like an art form.
A screenplay and superstar in perfect tandem, it doesn't get better than this.
Pushkar-Gayathri's entertaining remake is in complete possession of its two sides of the same coin tussle but smartly leaves the onus of figuring out the outcome of its final catch-22 on the audience.
Once again, Betaal has our back.