'Phantom': Film Review

Phantom Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Disney UTV

Phantom Still - H 2015

Patriotic Indian thriller hits the right emotional notes.

Indian filmmaker Kabir Khan tackles the Mumbai attacks of 2008 in an action film that has been banned in Pakistan.

When a group of 10 well-trained Pakistani terrorists effectively brought India to a standstill with a series of attacks at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and other high-profile targets in Mumbai Nov. 26, 2008, the country was left reeling. India's precarious relations with its rival were damaged to the point that many Indians still crave revenge today.

Kabir Khan is not the first filmmaker to tackle the subject of the so-called "26/11" attacks (Ram Gopal Varma tried it in 2013), but this film is the most successful to date. Although the film has predictably been banned in Pakistan, the well-paced action title is earning popular acclaim and will likely attract robust business at the box office in India and overseas for Disney India, a company formed when Disney acquired the major local producer/distributor UTV in 2012.

Read morePakistani Court Bans Bollywood Title “Phantom”

As Indian director Khan notes during the closing credits of the film, 166 people were killed during the 26/11 massacre, yet seven years later, the perpetrators have faded into the shadows and still walk free. Phantom — based on Hussain S. Zaidi’s novel Mumbai Avengers — poses an alternative scenario, in which a smart Indian spy and his comely sidekick take down the top operators in Pakistan’s reviled Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist organization in 2015 with one brutal strike after another. The result is a dark, if satisfying, film starring Saif Ali Khan and Katrina Kaif, and Kabir Khan’s characters in Phantom deliberately insist that it’s Pakistani terrorists who need to pay, not the Pakistani people.

Kabir Khan is a former documentarian and journalist whose cinematic obsession with Indo-Pakistani relations has fueled two of his feature films — Ek Tha Tiger and Bhajrangi Bhaijaan — both of which attained blockbuster status thanks to the pairing of Kaif with megastar Salman Khan

Read more: Bollywood Star Salman Khan, Out on Bail, Remains Box-Office Draw

Here, he casts Saif Ali Khan as Daniyal Khan, a disgraced soldier-turned-agent of India’s foreign intelligence organization, the Research and Analysis Wing or RAW, who goes undercover in exotic locales to assassinate the terror leaders and just maybe redeem himself in the eyes of the stern military father who has disowned him.

Director Khan, DP Aseem Mishra and editor Aarif Sheikh team up well for several gripping action scenes that show Daniyal’s expertise in delivering lethal results amid chaos: Daniyal struggles with a cheap plastic remote control in an attempt to detonate a bomb hidden in a microphone at a fundamentalist political rally; he kills another terrorist about to upload his photo from a war zone in Syria; and he neutralizes one chain-smoking bad guy with a well-timed gas stove bomb in a London flat. The filmmakers also generate excitement with a car chase in Chicago that opens the film, and another car chase at a remote checkpoint on the border with Afghanistan.

Saif Ali Khan is well cast as the brainy spy Daniyal, handy with weapons and a trained hand-to-hand killer. Khan is believable as a capable operative with a genuine affection for family and country, but Kaif, better in light roles than in hard-hitting action films like this, is wooden and overwhelmed here. The film’s supporting actors are uniformly excellent, especially Sohaila Kapur as a sympathetic Lakshar-e-Taiba nurse and Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub as an Indian intelligence official moved by Daniyal’s sacrifice.

Production: Disney India

Cast: Saif Ali Khan, Katrina Kaif

Director: Kabir Khan

Screenwriters: Kabir Khan and Parveez Shaikh

Producers: Sajid Nadiadwala and Siddharth Roy Kapur

Director of photography: Aseem Mishra

Production designers: Rajat Kapoor, Sukant Panigrahi, Zeina Nawar, Paul McCulloch

Editor: Aarif Sheikh

Composer: Pritam Chakraborty

Costumes: Subarna Ray Chaudhuri

Unrated, 148 minutes