Vigilante justice is the first thing that comes to the mind of our patriotic brethren, as soon as we are faced with a polarising terrorist attack. The cry to kill... kill... kill is foremost, fuelled by hate speech politicians and angry news channels that further the mob mentality. Waiting for the law's "innocent until proven guilty" approach seems to be too tedious and long for many, demanding instant gratification. Kabir Khan fuels this very fantasy with his new offering post Bhaijaan, with another Khan, Saif, in Phantom. The film is unapologetic about doing so, it has many justifications delivered by its heroic characters about why picking up cudgels "like America" and avoiding the complicated bureaucratic procedures leads to justice simply or fairly.
It is not coincidence that thefilm is named after another comic book hero — the army intelligence agency RAW has that status as far as Kabir Khan is concerned, especially in the world of spy thriller films (think Ek Tha Tiger). The opening credits are rolled on news reports about the 2008 Mumbai bomb blasts at the Taj Mahal hotel, and we land right in the middle of a RAW meeting, where the new officer on deputation (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) has some radical ideas about setting the record straight. His master plan involves finding a "phantom", an assassin without any existing records, "not even a Twitter or Facebook account", who will avenge "India" and set the record straight, by hounding and killing all the masterminds behind the 2008 bombings. A very complicated, yet entertaining plot — that takes us through Chicago, London, Syria, Pakistan and India — later, the story comes full circle on international waters en route to Mumbai from Karachi, as our hero Khan retraces the footsteps of the Mumbai terrorists. Not content with the epicness of this scenario, Kabir Khan gives his namesake actor a Titanic scene with his ladylove Katrina Kaif urf Nawaz Mistry.
Yes, it is another spy thriller that plays out a cathartic fantasy to complicated geo-political issues, and yes, both Kaif and Saif Ali Khan add nothing whatsoever to the role, but having said that, Phantom makes for a much more entertaining film than Ek Tha Tiger ever was. The editing has a major role to play in making this film so easy to watch. The camera and quick-cutting creates this perpetual sense of restlessness, a paranoia fuelled by the plot. Ordinary people get mired into Khan's complicated plot and are used as pawns, as he goes after one killer at a time, and there is enough tension built up to keep us on the edge of our seats.
Kaif has managed to own her role for the most part, and looks like she can handle the inter-country dalali that is her job profile, as a security consultant for a powerful international firm. RAW takes help from her to introduce Saif Ali Khan to his first target in London, and love blooms from then on. Apart from one scene where she has to pretend to be a pregnant lady, a gaffe that drew guffaws, she has become a comfortable actor in Bollywood. Saif Ali Khan has a stone-face that refuses to change no matter what he is doing in the film, from running to expressing anger, but thankfully the camera (wisely) doesn't rest on his face for too long.
Meanwhile, post Tanu weds Manu Returns, Ayyub has shone in yet another small but significant role, bringing in comic relief in his peculiar deadpan style. The relief provided by the one item song, Afghan Jalebi, on the other hand, is insignificant, and much more underwhelming, than when it first released separately, with a different video.
Phantom makes no bones about being born out of cliches, milking the audience for its dose of patriotism-fuelled pulp fantasy. What it manages to do is hold your attention while at it, with all the explosions and the multiple sub plots running at the same time across time differences.