March 31, 2017
Cast: Tapsee Pannu, Akshay Kumar, Manoj Bajpai, Prithviraj Sukumaran, Anupam Kher, Danny Denzongpa
Director: Shivam Nair
Although she showed up only for a brief cameo, most notably facing off against a terrorist in a Kathmandu hotel room, Tapsee Pannu’s ass-kicking special agent Shabana Khan was easily one of the best things in the Akshay Kumar starrer Baby. The prospect of revisiting that character in a film that puts her front and centre of its story is an appealing one no doubt. But as it turns out Naam Shabana – never mind how you describe it; as a prequel, a spin-off, or an origin story – is a plodding bore of a film.
It’s a shame because there’s so much potential here. What there isn’t, unfortunately, is an adequately fleshed out plot.
Tapsee returns to play Shabana, a solemn-faced Muslim girl with a dark past. We first meet her as a college student and martial arts enthusiast living with her mother in Mumbai. Since the film is set a few years before the events of Baby, we learn why and under what circumstances she is recruited by a top-secret, off-the-grid intelligence agency that has been tracking her for some time.
The first half of the film moves at a snail’s pace, as writer Neeraj Pandey and director Shivam Nair spend way too much time on set up and backstory. Tapsee is terrific in the action sequences; her kicks and blows feel real. The film is on solid ground when she’s throwing punches, but little else is as compelling.
Midway through the film it becomes your standard espionage thriller about a crack team tasked with pinning down a most-wanted international arms dealer. Shabana, yanked out even before she’s completed training, is embedded in the mission because presumably the agency doesn’t have anyone more experienced or more skilled to do the job. It all makes very little sense.
But looking for logic or common sense is setting yourself up for disappointment. A big twist involving the identity of the chief bad guy can be spotted from a mile away. And while you can always count on Akshay Kumar to bring some flair, unexpected humor even, to dull proceedings, his presence as a safety net for our more-than-capable protagonist is both puzzling and a little insulting.
The problem at the root of this film is that it literally offers nothing new, other than the idea of a woman who knows her way around a fight. The plot is predictable from the word go, and yet it unfolds over an excruciating two-and-a-half hours. Familiar faces from Baby – Manoj Bajpai, Danny Denzongpa, Anupam Kher – show up to pad out the narrative, and cast in a negative role Malayalam star Prithviraj Sukumaran brings an appropriately menacing presence.
The star attraction though is Tapsee, but strictly when she’s in action-heroine mode, letting her fists and her feet do the talking. Her performance through the rest of the film is strictly one-note.
I’m going with two out of five for Naam Shabana. I’ve seldom been this bored.
(This review first aired on CNN News18)