RRR is the kind of grand, large-scale, all-in-one entertainment that has seemingly vanished from Hollywood. It’s the kind of film that invites the cliché “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” response, but the truth is that they never really made them like this.
It’s very difficult to describe S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR to someone who hasn’t seen it. It’s even more difficult if that person doesn’t have any knowledge of Tollywood – the Indian regional cinema industry that’s the young, flashy upstart to the more stately, established Bollywood industry which most Americans consider synonymous with Indian cinema. True to that film culture, RRR isn’t just big, it’s huge: a three hour-long historical epic starring two of Indian cinema’s biggest superstars as heavily-fictionalized versions of two of the country’s most famous revolutionaries. It’s a superhero film without any “superheroes”. It has some musical numbers, but it’s not really a musical. It has eye-popping action sequences, but the characters are so well-drawn that they pop just as much as the fighting. It’s the kind of film that inspires breathless proclamations of its greatness when the end credits finish rolling, and it’s not hard to see why when the title card finally appears over half an hour in.
By that time, we have already been treated to three big action sequences introducing our main characters. First, we have Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan), an Indian soldier stationed at a British army outpost under siege by countrymen upset by the arrest of their leader by the British government. When a British officer orders the capture of a man who threw a rock which broke a picture of the British Governor Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson), Raju leaps over the base’s fence and fights his way through a sea of hundreds to get the man.
Then, we have Komuram Bheem (N.T. Rama Rao, Jr.), a member of the Gond tribe sent to Delhi to rescue a young girl unwittingly sold to Governor Scott and his wife (Alison Doody) in the film’s harrowing opening scene.Bheem and his brothers are attempting to capture a wolf in the jungle, but when a tiger latches onto his scent, Bheem must use his superhuman strength and quick thinking to capture the tiger instead. These are only two of a long list of completely CGI animals in the film, and they’re as well-rendered as any you’d see in a higher-budgeted Hollywood blockbuster.
The incredible thing about these two sequences is that, as thrilling as they are, as impressive as the filmmaking is, they put character front and center – Raju and Bheem are men on a mission, and these action scenes show that they will do whatever they must in order to succeed. Raju is the unstoppable force, all forward momentum, while Bheem is the immovable object, rock-solid and stalwart in the face of any pain.
When they finally meet, the results are explosive as they team up to save a young boy from a fire caused by a leaky oil container on a train. However, unbeknownst to them, the two men have been put on a collision course with each other, with Raju seeking a promotion if he can capture Bheem, whom no one in Delhi knows anything about other than that he has been sent to rescue the young Indian girl painting henna tattoos on the hands of the women in the Buxtons’ estate.
A relatively simple set-up, then, with clear character motivations that will only become more complicated as the story plays out. But the genius in Rajamouli’s film is the style with which it is filmed. Everything about RRR is outsized, and the filmmaking matches it and even heightens it, with the clarity of the performances pushed even further by M.M. Keervani’s unforgettable score and the slick, smart cinematography by Senthil Kumar. These emotions aren’t just big, they’re the biggest. When the characters are happy, you’ve never seen smiles so wide. When they’re angry, the buildings around them shake from their screams of torment. During one scene, Bheem is being tortured, and his resolute commitment to his cause is so powerful that he sings a song so moving that it causes a riot.
Yes, RRR is that kind of movie. It is patently ridiculous, and knows it. That knowledge, though, gives a sense of fun to the proceedings that many similar films lack. There’s a genuine “gee whiz, can you believe we’re making a movie?!” atmosphere in every frame of RRR, so that when Bheem flips over a motorcycle, swings it around like a discus, and uses it to knock out a British soldier, you’re screaming and applauding about how freaking awesome what just happened is, not only because of how clever it is and how cool it looks, but because you’re so invested in the characters and how they got to this point that you’re cheering them on to victory.
Rajamouli is such a naturally gifted storyteller that every plot beat feels like the exact right one for the moment in which they occur. Even when the inevitable plot complications happen, they feel true to the characters and add new layers to the story. RRR earns its three-hour runtime with a truly epic story to support its legendary lead characters.
As grandly entertaining and well-constructed as it is, though, RRR is not perfect. However, the ways in which it is not perfect are the ways in which many Indian films are: the English-speaking performances are a little stiff and unbelievable (although Stevenson and Doody do find moments of camp fun), the visual effects have their moments of dodginess, and the cinematography has a slightly-too-clean digital sheen that doesn’t look inexpensive but somehow still makes the film look cheap in certain shots. But when everything else in the film is so damn good – so well-paced, so emotionally involving, so exciting to watch – those feel like such minor nitpicks.
RRR is the kind of grand, large-scale, all-in-one entertainment that has seemingly vanished from Hollywood. It’s the kind of film that invites the cliché “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” response, but the truth is that they never really made them like this. At least, not in Hollywood. They’ve been making them in India for decades, though, and RRR is a shining example of why Indian people flock to theaters all around the world to see films from their home country. When a film can make you feel this high, can get you this drunk on the magic of cinema, who needs drugs?
Nominated: Best Original Song (“Naatu Naatu”)
Should Have Been Considered: Best Picture, Best Director, Lead Actor (Ram Charan), Supporting Actor (Ajay Devgn), Cinematography, Film Editing, Visual Effects, Sound, Original Score
Where to Watch: Netflix; In Select Theaters
New York based non-profit professional by day, movie & theater critic by night, dancer all the time.
Favorite Actress: Tilda Swinton