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Fighter (2024)

“Fighter” is much, much more interesting than its topline, a.k.a. the Indian answer to “Top Gun: Maverick” and “Born to Fly.” The influence of American war movies and all their cheery flyboys is strong, but “Fighter” is much more pointed than either of the American and Chinese celebration of their armed forces in that it has a clear conflict and enemy: Kashmir, and terrorists who commit crimes against Indian citizens while finding shelter in Pakistan. This specificity is very unusual in recent worldwide blockbusters and means that the relentless patriotism, such as a poem about how no coffin is more beautiful than one draped with an Indian flag, is way more meaningful.

There’s a new terrorist on the rise: Azhar Aktar (Rishabh Sawhney), who looks like all the boy vampires from “Twilight” combined, and who clearly has been able to fund his extremely successful evil empire through an extremely successful modeling career, one bloodsoaked eye or not. But he’s very good at killing everybody, and as a result the Indian air force sends its best pilots to an air base near the Kashmiri border. These include the nation’s best fighter pilot, call sign Patty (Hrithik Roshan), his old friend Taj (Karan Singh Grover), Taj’s wingman, Bash (Akshay Oberoi), Patty’s wingman, Unni (Mahesh Shetty), and two helicopter pilots, Sukhi (Banveen Singh) and Minni (Deepika Padukone), under the leadership of Rocky (Anil Kapoor, wearing the mustache that’s legally mandated in movies for military men of a certain nonmenacing seniority). They are all way too old for their parts, but never mind. Taj is a wife guy and Saachi (Sanjeeda Sheikh) is a full member of the gang who helpfully explains to Minni how Patty’s late fiancée was also a helicopter pilot. But all the snowfights on mountaintops and bonding dance numbers in nightclubs are to prepare them for the very real threat over the border. The Pakistani military does not take kindly to Indian incursions over their airspace; and there’s a remarkable question of how much of the terrorism Azhar is responsible for is actually state-sponsored. Of course, if you’re just looking for an excuse to hang one of your nation’s biggest movie stars out of a helicopter with an enormous flag, the bigger the better.

Women pilots are fully integrated into the fighting squadrons in a way that neither the American or Chinese versions of this movie managed to do; and the convenient plot device of Patty falling in love with them is somehow not the point. The fact that Minni’s family disowned her when she joined the air force allows for many emotionally manipulative scenes about patriotism, valor and the meaning of love. It’s a bit irritating that the big speeches about equality are given to Mr. Roshan though, even if he does have the most amazing green eyes, especially since Ms. Padukone’s are so huge and limpid they are his equal in the beauty stakes. There are many arguments about fairness and revenge, and the best way to serve justice, if it’s through teamwork or by allowing the best people their own way. But “Fighter” is clear about one thing – the Indian way of life is superior and worth killing for.

The fact that the flight scenes were mostly made inside a computer means they don’t impress as much as they ought. The big finale is a knock-down, drag-out fistfight, which is a failure of imagination; and the final twist is so obviously faked that the victory rings a little hollow. Of course, director Siddharth Anand is unlikely to agree – his war movies have been taking the Hindi box office by storm lately; and he knows how to give the people what they want. The final dance number between Mr. Roshan and Ms. Padukone has no plot relevance whatsoever except to allow cinematographer Satchith Paulose to redefine the word “glistening.”

And it is very pretty to watch, which is the movie’s main point. There’s not much of an appetite for destruction here, which is a fresh outlook for a piece of military propaganda. The whole point of all that muscle is to ensure your opponents are too intimidated to fight it. But “Fighter” has a much better time when it suggests you might start thinking about other things you’d prefer to do with all that muscle instead. For a war movie to be making that point deliberately, instead of with the subtext that’s become the main discussion point of the original “Top Gun” these days, well, that’s a whole new way to fight.


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