Before it released this past Friday, Agent Vinod – the latest vanity project from Saif Ali Khan’s Illuminati Films – had been in production so long it had earned the nickname “Aging Vinod.” The long production time suggested that the final product could be one of two things: a great movie carefully and thoughtfully put together, or a disjointed mess. I’d been looking forward to the film, because the espionage genre is one of my favourites – I can’t resist its combination of stylishness and intrigue – and it’s a genre that is sadly lacking in Indian films. Unfortunately, I found Agent Vinod to be closer to the ‘disjointed mess’ end of the spectrum – a classic case of style over substance.
First of all, at 2 hours and 40 minutes the movie is way too long – it needed to lose a good 10-20 minutes of runtime. Secondly, the stakes are not high enough. We’re told some bad guys want to obtain a suitcase bomb, but we don’t learn why until late in the film. I think that’s a huge mistake. The audience needs to know early on what kind of catastrophic event is imminent so that we can actually care about the secret agent’s attempts to foil it. Related to this: there were too many villains. There’s a reason the casting of the ‘Bond villain’ receives as much attention as the casting of the ‘Bond girl’ and Bond himself – these are the three tent poles that support any spy story. Too many villains in Agent Vinod meant the conflict was diluted which, like not knowing the details of the villains’ plan, resulted in not feeling invested in the story. Also too much: location-hopping. Visiting exotic locales is an important convention of the espionage genre but Agent Vinod goes overboard with this, jumping from place to place, lowering the audience’s level of concentration and creating instead a feeling like narrative whiplash.
It’s too bad that Agent Vinod’s story couldn’t live up to its production values, which were really quite high. Although – a shoot-out in a Latvian hotel set to a love song and filmed in a single tracking shot is getting a lot of attention but it just didn’t work for me at all. Just because you can film something as a long tracking shot, doesn’t mean you should, and this was not an appropriate use of that technique. The music is pretty good, except I thought they relied too heavily on vintage film music, especially the peppy kind that, for me, usually signals a parody or homage. However, the film remains steadfastly earnest (except for the song that plays over the end credits) so the vintage music doesn’t suit what’s happening on screen. Also, why did everyone have silencers on their guns throughout the movie? That just looked weird.
The biggest highlight of the movie for me, in addition to the high production values, was Kareena Kapoor as Iram Parveen Billal, a former medical student unwittingly caught up in the world of international espionage. The fact that Kareena looks just as good and comfortable in cleavage-bearing evening gowns and mujra outfits as she does in jeans and sneakers with no makeup helped telegraph the idea of a woman caught between two worlds. Also I just love that she spent the last part of the movie wearing sensible shoes. However, the fact that I liked Kareena’s character caused another source of annoyance, due to the way her character’s storyline was wrapped up.
I wish I could be as complimentary about Saif Ali Khan’s performance as Agent Vinod. Actors must be careful to portray a secret agent’s combination of suave and deadly without veering into smarmy territory. For me, Saif started the movie already smarmy – needlessly betraying his partner in the opening sequence – and never fully recovered. It didn’t help that Vinod seemed to have a pathological inability to do up the top two buttons of every shirt. He should really see someone about that problem – like a tailor… or a therapist.
All in all, I’m disappointed Agent Vinod didn’t live up to its potential. It’s a good-looking film that ultimately sinks under its own bloat.