One of the most striking aspects of "Khakee" is the screenplay. Jointly composed by Sridhar Raghvan and film director Raj Kumar Santoshi, it is one of the finest pieces of writing seen in recent mainstream cinema.
Apart from two clumsily placed love duets (as out of place as pom-pom girls at a raga recital), the film has no place for humbug. Every character, big or small, is created diligently, so that what we're watching in "Khakee" is the first Hollywood thriller that doesn't ape any specific film from the West.
Raj Kumar Santoshi's crisis-driven cinema has always been a notch above the ordinary. Whether it was Sunny Deol in "Ghayal" or "Ghatak", or Meenakshi Sheshadri in "Damini", Santoshi's protagonists are driven by demoniacal despair.
Like the director's "China Gate" and "Lajja", "Khakee" focuses on a multitude of protagonists, all motivated by the same crisis. The director composes a series of unflinchingly vivid situations that are thrilling and thought provoking.
Santoshi has never let us down. In "Khakee", he goes beyond expectations to create a universe of unique situations within the much-flogged thriller format.
In principle, "Khakee" is a one-line story -- a group of dedicated cops are assigned the task of bringing a suspected terrorist to Mumbai for trial.
Santoshi takes this one-liner into areas of deep and damning socio-political comment. Very rarely does an adventure flick synthesise basic entertainment with comments on the corrupt establishment with such virile persuasiveness.
The narration is always several steps ahead of us, prompting us to run after the characters with the same gusto as displayed by police officer Anant (Amitabh Bachchan) chasing his terrifying adversary (Ajay Devgan).
There are crackling confrontation sequences between Amitabh and Devgan. Without resorting to a saturated soundtrack or complicated camera movements, Santoshi grabs our attention.
Vice is the voice of the film. The stench of corruption as five brave police officers battle outside terrorists and those within their own department seeps into Santoshi's strongly redolent drama. It creates an impact that's comparable with that other great morality myth of mainstream cinema, "Sholay".
What's truly remarkable is the volume of original ideas that run through the breakneck narration. While the characters fight the big battle with Devgan, they also grapple with invisible demons within.
Amitabh's character has to deal with a lifetime of frustrations as a khaki-clad law enforcer. And when his failures are flung in his face by Devgan or even his junior Akshay Kumar, we flinch for all the times that honest cops are thwarted in their efforts to do their jobs honestly.
As the plot's pivot, Amitabh has a bulk of blows to deliver into the script. This is his most challenging role in years. Angry and frustrated, bitter and rhetorically unbridled, Amitabh delivers a lean, mean performance percolating with unexpressed frisson. He effortlessly towers above the impressive cast.
But the real surprise is Akshay Kumar. As the wry, philandering, corrupt and yet redeemable cop, Akshay has the most crowd-pleasing lines and scenes, including one of the most memorable death sequences ever written for a matinee idol. After years he has finally given a physically and emotionally contoured performance.
Many of Akshay's scenes are with Tusshar, who plays the new starry-eyed recruit. As the junior-most member of the cast, Tusshar's inbuilt inexperience lends a scintillating edge to the gruesome and gripping goings on. His scene where he must inform the slain cop's wife of the tragedy stays in memory. But Aishwarya Rai is completely wasted. She performs her indifferent role indifferently.
Ajay Devgan's cold-blooded villainy, though intimidating, is more about ambience and presentation than performance. His lean, languorous look often seems a pretext for laziness as an actor. Still, Devgan creates true terror in audiences' hearts.
Next to Amitabh and Akshay, the most vivid character is played by Atul Kulkarni. Playing a Muslim doctor wrongly framed as a terrorist and horrifically persecuted, Kulkarni gives the role the power and dignity it deserves.
Here are a bunch of stars and actors simply slipping into their vivid and credible parts to carry the plot into the realm of the riveting.
The dialogues are cutting and ironic but not over-burdened with polemics. The technical crew is in tune with Santoshi. The sound mixing is exceptionally subtle. The background music is so delicately done that it's almost invisible.
K.V. Anand's camera often frames the cops' team in a spiral of anxious faces, some blurred, others tense but always engaging.
Ram Sampat's songs, so ear-friendly off screen, make no impact. But then, Santoshi has never been much of a music man.