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MOVIE REVIEW
Bellbottom (2021)

Is there anything Akshay Kumar can’t do? Over the course of “Bellbottom” he does a lot of manful striding, filmed from a low angle, so we can best appreciate his magnificence. He rides a motorbike with sunglasses but without a helmet. He has a training montage in the woods involving a lot of chin-ups and exercises with tires. He is invited to sing at a wedding reception, which then involves a montage of him and Vaani Kapoor (badly underused as his clever and perky wife Radhika) having a much better time on a train in Scotland than usual. And as a spy/analyst specializing in airplane hijacks – which were an unfortunately regular occurrence in India in the mid-’80s – he is able to boss around senior politicians of several different countries, up to and including Indira Gandhi (Lara Dutta) herself. And while this adoration is a little silly, it’s not remotely ridiculous. Somehow in the context of the plot, Mr. Kumar's star wattage is justified.

The plot is based around a hijack, led by the nefarious Doddy (Zain Khan Durrani), but orchestrated elsewhere – by whom being the main question of the plot. As the plane is diverted to Amritsar, Lahore, and then Dubai, Anshul Malhotra (Mr. Kumar), known to all in his work for secret agency Research and Analysis Wing by his code name Bellbottom, is brought to that top-secret meeting where he displays a thorough and accurate knowledge of the group responsible and their plans. As a result Bellbottom is authorized to lead a special mission at the Dubai airport in order to recover the passengers with no loss of life. How did Bellbottom become such an expert in hijackings? Well, there’s a couple flashbacks focused on his grouchy but loving mother, Raavie (Dolly Ahluwalia), and you’ve seen a movie before.

Now, director Ranjit M. Tewari knows we know that Bellbottom can save the day, but there’s still plenty of suspense in how. An encounter at a temple in London, where a chubby sister-in-law trips over a praying man, leads to a fight sequence between nine people that’s all the more menacing for taking place in a cramped apartment building – and it’s all the more effective for being so clearly choreographed and shot. The diplomatic arguments about the geopolitical ramifications of India being allowed to deploy troops on foreign soil and the inherent value of human life are a refreshing change to Western cinema, which has the nasty tendency to take pride in a heaping body count. The nearest this movie comes to such unpleasantness is when someone asks Santook (Adil Hussain), the head of R.A.W., why the secret service is needed, and he replies with an analogy so cheerfully crass the opening-night audience laughed for a good 20 seconds. Bellbottom even smiles and says, “Respect.”

The movie's mood swings between marital flirting, mother-son bickering, political buck-passing, terrorist glee at getting a new hand grenade, and/or the deployment of a squad of lightly armed fighters in a hastily abandoned airport have the cumulative effect of making it feel incredibly human, with or without the heavy-handed music. (Sample banter, between Anshul and Radhika: “Your mind's full of shit.” “Then stop licking it every morning.”) There's no sarcasm, and none of the nihilistic remarks that in Western war propaganda passes for jokes. In fact “Bellbottom’s” whole aesthetic is much more likable than any Hollywood action thriller has allowed itself to be lately. That’s even though the big finale, with its shades of “Mission Impossible – Ghost Protocol” and “Blade Runner 2049,” relies on C.G.I. a little too much, which is both understandable and a damn shame. For a movie entirely predicated on emphasizing the value of human life, anything that knocks humanity down a peg is to be regretted.

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