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Eye for an Eye, Captain

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MOVIE REVIEW
Captain Miller (2024)

While it feels like a western and looks like a war epic, “Captain Miller” manages to have its cake and eat it. The movie preaches a message of antiviolence while amassing a body count in the thousands. Five bomb and fire experts are thanked in the credits, which understates how many explosions take place and how much stunt work must have been necessary. But despite the extraordinary amount of mayhem, the overall message is one of disgust for violence and the unjust systems which make violence inescapable.

Eesa (Dhanush) lives in a small village in the days of the raj. The village is adjacent to a temple to the god Koranan, so mighty he wears the intestines of his enemies as a necklace, but in the 600 years since the village built the temple, the local kings have never allowed any of the villagers inside. But the princess has come of age, so Eesa and a friend sneak in to see her. They are immediately spotted and escape with their lives only thanks to another princess, Velmathi (Priyanka Arul Mohan), who is also a doctor and about to run off with her boyfriend despite the sparks that suddenly fly between her and Eesa. But when Eesa realizes Velmathi will never love him back, he strops off to join the British army over the objections of his brother Sengannan (Shiva Rajkumar).

Eesa is so taken with the opportunities for reinvention that army life offers he doesn't mind that his uniform is second-hand and comes with a name already attached: Miller. He goes with great pride on his first mission until he realizes it's to slaughter a group of unarmed people peacefully protesting British rule. After initially refusing to shoot, Eesa ends up killing his British commander, but is saved from suicide by his friend Rai (Sundeep Kishan) and told to run. The village elders harshly reject him, so Eesa ends up integrating with a bandit crew led by Kannaya (Elango Kumaravel), who appreciate his marksmanship and are prepared to risk the danger he brings to their gang. But even as Eesa moves into his new life as the fugitive Captain Miller, the royals of his home village in addition to the entire British power structure are determined not to let this one man get away with anything. And if a lot of innocent people are murdered so that Captain Miller is found? Well, villains aren’t villains for nothing.

That's enough of the plot, in which there's enough multilayered competing interests and betrayals to stand up against any Cold War spy thriller. Dhanush’s performance is incredible, as a rejected young man who comes to embrace his identity as a murderer because it’s the only one he has been allowed. While he shares the disgust other people have for it, he also loathes the hypocrisy which keeps weapons in his hands; and how well Dhanush shows the subtlety of these moods in the middle of intensely violent war sequences is a genuine surprise. At one point Kannaya’s gang is hired to retrieve something from a convoy of trucks protected by the British army. Director Arun Matheswaran films it like a stagecoach attack from an old western, only Miller leads the attack from a motorcycle while throwing hand grenades. Most pleasing of all, it's soundtracked to furious Tamil hip-hop. The modern musical choices of G. V. Prakash Kumar add a fresh modern layer of spite and anger to the carnage.

This is because the movie's main achievement is that it shows, step by step, the circumstances which turn Captain Miller into a stone killer, but without letting sympathy for his reasons excuse the horror of his crimes. He writes notes in the blood of his victims, after all. This is an unexpected message from a thriller aiming to wreak revenge on all the oppressors of Captain Miller’s home village and which does so using a truly vast array of weapons. The weapons include Thaenu (Nivedhithaa Sathish), the main female member of Kannaya’s gang, and who while still a teenager is so ferocious a fighter Captain Miller organically takes her as his second, despite his steady encouragement for her to put down her rifle and get married. Fortunately Thaenu ignores his lack of imagination, and is consistently in the right place at the right time to keep Captain Miller alive. Her unusual ear piercing is a clever plot point, too.

It's not flawless – the pacing in the second half is badly dragged by a prolonged flashback, which leads into a lengthy battle sequence of astounding carnage, handled so coolly someone makes a grand entrance on horseback. There’s probably a kitchen sink in there somewhere too. But the enduring impression is of Dhanush’s bitterly weary face as he wields a machine gun and the soundtrack chants “Killer, killer, Captain Miller.” All the blood on Captain Miller’s hands might well be justified, but it comes at a very high price, and the movie makes sure we feel every single cent paid. It’s a fascinating movie.

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