The height of Thalapathy Vijay’s stardom can be better understood by the fact that every single one of his releases has a certain level of hype to it, which sometimes even overshadows the quality of the film. His collaborations with A.R. Murugadoss (Thuppaki, Kaththi, and Sarkar) and Atlee (Theri, Mersal, and Bigil) have turned him into a household name all over India and, most definitely, all around the world. And while the pandemic disrupted the theatrical reach of his first collaboration with Lokesh Kanagaraj, Master, it was widely appreciated by old fans and new ones after its OTT release. To be honest, it’s one of my most rewatched Indian films of all time, and when I’m not watching it, I’m playing the scenes in my head. So, you can only imagine how excited I was for the second Vijay-Lokesh collaboration and the third entry in the Lokesh Cinematic Universe, i.e., Leo. And let’s just say that they didn’t disappoint.
Leo, which is written by Kanagaraj, Rathna Kumar, and Deeraj Vaidy, follows Parthiban, who is a family man, the owner of a cafe, and an animal rescuer. He has been living in Theog, Himachal Pradesh, for around two decades with his wife, Sathya, and kids, Siddharth and Mathi. His best and only friend is the forest officer, Joshy. He has an amicable relationship with his employees. It’s all relatively quaint and silent. But this air of peace is disrupted by a group of hoodlums which is going around the town, indiscriminately killing people and stealing money from them. After a streak of murders, they enter Parthiban’s Cafe and begin harassing one of the employees, Shruti. Still, Parthiban tries his best to get the criminals out of there without harming anyone. When they refuse to do that, Parthiban unleashes his violent side. This turns him into an overnight sensation, with his name being nominated for bravery awards and whatnot. Instead of savoring the limelight, Parthiban gets increasingly scared because he knows that the proverbial genie is out of the bottle.
Leo, which is apparently inspired by David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, works surprisingly well as a paranoid thriller. I am genuinely in awe of how the writers build up the menace of the serial killers only to have them humbled by Parthiban. If you have watched the trailers, you’ll probably be under the impression that they are a major presence throughout the film. Spoiler alert: They are not! They are just the match that lights the fire that fuels the rest of the narrative, and in my opinion, that’s brilliant. I also love the portrayal of Parthiban as a bundle of nerves. He is essentially Keller Dover from Prisoners, if Keller Dover was proficient at hand-to-hand combat. You don’t see mainstream Tamil heroes being shown in this light, and even though it’s a massive ruse (which we’ll come to in a bit), the protagonist’s tension is so palpable that it gradually increases your investment in the plot. Parthiban’s proximity to his family and his desperation to convince the authorities that he needs help add to the mystique around him. We know that this guy is a badass. Then why is he crafting such a thick veil around him? And that’s where the second half comes into play.
I feel that the second half of Leo will be a hit or a miss for two very different reasons: folks will be underwhelmed by Parthiban’s backstory, or they’ll misinterpret Parthiban’s characterization, and one of those two reasons is valid. The whole flashback sequence is pretty undercooked. It almost goes into occult horror territory, and there’s nothing particularly wrong about that. It’s just that the time spent in this gothic atmosphere isn’t enough to buy Antony’s shtick. The enmity between Leo, Antony, and Harold seemingly spawns out of nowhere, and it doesn’t even get a particularly cathartic conclusion. As for the characterization, all I have to say is that Parthiban isn’t a good guy. He is actually a horrible human being. He is probably heartless. I know that’s hard to believe because his carefully crafted image is that robust. He wears the skin of the savior because it’s an easy disguise. And if you think about it, that is chilling. That’s why I wish Kanagaraj and his team of writers spent more time fleshing that out. They do a decent job of showing how far their protagonist is ready to drag out a blatant lie, but they never use it to transfer Parthiban’s paranoia onto the rest of the characters, and that feels like a missed opportunity.
Leo is a well-crafted movie. Every single action sequence is so amazingly conceived and executed that I couldn’t help but applaud. Lokesh and his team of action directors, choreographers, and stunt experts seem to be governed by the law that “everything is a weapon” when it comes to structuring the beats of their setpieces. If a fight breaks out in a cafe, the cups, plates, napkin holders, kettles, chairs, tables, and showpieces can be used to hurt each other. If a scuffle takes place in a busy marketplace, fruits, vegetables, knives, ropes, sickles, light bulbs, meat cleavers, rakes, and, well, anything that can be purchased can be used to kill each other. And if a brawl happens after a kinetic, pulse-pounding, and CGI-heavy highway chase, the broken parts of the vehicles can be wielded like swords and knives. In addition to all that, it even becomes a Home Alone film for a while, and I love all of it. Talking about CGI, that hyena looks frighteningly realistic. The visuals, courtesy of Manoj Paramahamsa and Satheesh Kumar, are excellent. While some of the conversation scenes can feel a little choppy, Philomin Raj makes the aforementioned action scenes feel alive. Anirudh Ravichander’s music is great! The pacing is sluggish. It didn’t need to be if it stuck to being a paranoid thriller.
Leo is a Thalapathy Vijay show, and depending on who you ask, it is a good thing or a bad thing. If it’s not clear yet, I’m a fan of the actor, and I didn’t mind him hogging the limelight. I would’ve had a problem if said limelight was being hogged by a bad actor, but my man is here acting his “bloody sweet” heart out. The way he highlights Parthiban’s vulnerability, his love for his family, and how the violence around him is eroding his soul is genuinely fantastic. It seems like he has done a lot of his stunts, and his physicality makes those altercations feel raw and frenetic. He gets to flex his dancing chops only once in the entire film, and, oh my god, is his energy infectious as hell. With all that said, I understand that Kanagaraj’s undivided attention towards Vijay doesn’t allow the rest of the cast to shine. Sanjay Dutt and Arjun are poorly utilized. Trisha, Matthew Thomas, and Iyal could’ve been the heart of the film, but they ended up being pretty forgettable. The immensely talented Gautham Vasudev Menon doesn’t get to flex his acting chops at all. The same can be said for George Maryan, despite the integral nature of his character. By the time you exit the theater, you won’t even remember that Mansoor Ali Khan was in the film. And, yes, that is indeed a bad thing.
Leo is a great paranoid thriller that is bogged down by hollow supporting characters. I understand Lokesh Kanagaraj’s need to do a genre mashup because he has done so in the past with Kaithi, Master, and Vikram. And since Leo is part of a trilogy of films, doing it throughout the franchise can feel like a necessity. However, if it’s dampening the intensity of one of the subgenres, he can simply avoid it until he gets the perfect combo. I think he knows how to craft tense sequences. He is one of the best Indian directors working in the action genre. He knows how to present the most notable names in the Tamil film industry. Now, he has to find a way to balance the two halves of his film instead of getting carried away by the scale and scope of the narrative. That said, Leo is a fun time, especially if you are in the company of an enthusiastic, Thalapathy Vijay-loving crowd.