Bollywood megastar Shah Rukh Khan attempts a much-anticipated comeback in “Pathaan,” an amateurish Indian super-spy thriller that’s never as well-executed as it is conceptually goofy and politically dubious.
“Pathaan” re-imagines Khan as the leader of a disjointed Avengers-style team of Hindi-language speaking action heroes from the “Yash Raj Films Spy Universe” franchise, so it’s not surprising that the beefy leading man Salman Khan makes a hotly tipped cameo appearance as Avinash Singh Rathore, the headliner in both the underwhelming antiterrorist drama “Ek Tha Tiger” and its superior follow-up, “Tiger Zinda Hai.”
It’s unfortunately telling that, in an overproduced action scene where both Shah Rukh and Salman run and gun down a swathe of badly image-composited terrorist heavies, neither man seems to be in the same studio lot as the other.
“Pathaan” feels like a clone of the previous “Spy Universe” installments—including both Tiger movies and the 2019 Hrithik Roshan vs. Tiger Shroff face-off “War”—which were already cobbled together from other Hollywood and Bollywood programmers.
In “Pathaan,” SRK’s characteristically smoldering title character must stop the disenchanted mercenary Jim (former supermodel turned actor John Abraham) from detonating Raktbeej, a devastating biochemical weapon. To stop Jim, Pathaan teams-up with everyone including Tiger, ex-spy turned femme fatale love interest Rubina (Deepika Padukone), and the noble but otherwise unremarkable Indian spy Nandini (Dimple Kapadia). Some high-concept globetrotting hijinks ensue, most of which isn’t as well-covered, computer-animated, or cut as it should be.
As a character, Pathaan often talks and behaves like he was created by a social-cue-missing screenwriting program. Khan falls back on his usual stock poses and gestures throughout, murmur-growling like a “Twilight” vampire even as he delivers corny one-liners and awkward expository dialogue. Unfortunately, not even SRK’s famous pout nor even his cheese grater-sharp abs can save this turkey.
Office-bound spies like Nandini and her stuffy boss Luthra (Ashutosh Rana) also scowl and sigh over computer monitors while struggling with expository dialogue that evaporates mid-sentence. And neither Abraham nor Padukone have much chemistry with Khan, who did a lot more with way less during his extended cameo in last year’s totally watchable superhero fantasy “Brahmastra: Part 1—Shiva.”
The makers of “Pathaan” don’t seem to know what to do with this sort of hoary post-Jason Bourne material, though they’ve apparently cribbed a few visual cues and establishing images from recent action movies like “Captain America: The Winter Soldier,” pretty much all of the recent “Mission: Impossible” movies, and “The Raid 2: Redemption.” Still, it’s kind of amazing to see flag-waving nationalist characters talk and act in a way that suggests that, while their creators know exactly what kind of movie they’re making, they also have no idea how to make their stars look either seductive or cool.
“Pathaan” frequently devolves into unintentionally campy surrealism, like when Pathaan finds Rubina bobbing in an outdoor pool. Within seconds, he discovers a smirking Jim lurking in the water just over her shoulder. This sort of cheese-soaked revelation could have been finessed until it seemed confident and/or savvy enough; as it is, this scene looks tonally berzerk and immediately embarrassing.
Some high-concept set pieces rise above shoddy execution and creative mismanagement, particularly any wire stunts involving helicopters, byplanes, or rocket-powered jet packs. Corny and garish, sure, but it’s hard to resist any sequence where Khan and his co-leads valiantly grit their teeth while their characters fly through heavily green-screened airspace.
Most gravity-bound fights and dance numbers tend to be over-edited and uninspired, especially given their stifling hand-held camerawork. In theory, the movie’s climactic Pathaan vs. Jim brawl should have been a delirious show-stopper since the two super-spies literally punch their way through the walls and support beams of a precariously elevated cliffside log cabin. In reality, the filmmakers get in our way so often that this big finish soon becomes a big letdown.
The makers of “Pathaan” don’t seem to know what to do with their stacked ensemble cast. During his cameo, poor Salman Khan seems to be disassociating when he, standing in the middle of a half-demolished computer-animated train, says: “I’m having a blast, are you?”
Shah Rukh Khan doesn’t usually fare much better, especially not when he, in an early scene that introduces viewers to Jim, stammers silently from inside an overturned car, shown to us in a series of monotonous upside down close-ups that look gut-bustingly silly as reaction shots during Jim’s seemingly endless introductory spiel (presented right-side up, of course).
“Pathaan” stinks on its own terms, which were previously established in the last three “Yash Raj Films Spy Universe” titles. Like those earlier tentpole-risers, “Pathaan” uses its amoral villains to establish an unbelievable, meathead-friendly sort of purity test: either you gladly sacrifice yourself for your country or you die a coward’s death. But Khan’s latest vehicle isn’t even good as junky leftovers, like when Pathaan dramatically introduces the Afghan foster family who, during a negligible Jason Bourne-style flashback, nursed him back to health after a fit of amnesia. “This is my Afghan family,” Khan says with no irony or emotional inflection. Is he serious? Does it matter?