It has enough going for it – a no-nonsense script, a clipped pace, punchy dialogues and spiffy cinematography – to justify its 160-minure runtime.
Yet Once Upon Ay Time in Mumbai Dobaara! falls well short of being quite as engaging as the film that it is a sequel to.
The reason is pretty obvious: the characters that Ajay Devgn and Emraan Hashmi fleshed out in Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai were infinitely more complex and nuanced.
The survivor from the first installment is the protagonist of this film. He is now older, meaner and given to ways that are more ruthless than the ones he learnt on the way up.
The coldblooded gangster, now played by Akshay Kumar, returns from an offshore location to reclaim his turf in the city of his birth.
Shoaib makes a huge hoo-ha about the fact that he isn’t a hero, but a villain.
His philosophy is rudimentary: good guys go to heaven; bad guys experience the bliss of paradise on earth.
His methods are heavy-handed, and he delivers forceful one-liners at the drop of a hat. Some of them do come off pretty well and are certain to draw applause from Akshay Kumar fans.
The conventional villain, Rawal (Mahesh Manjrekar), Shoaib’s principal underworld opponent, is reduced to playing second fiddle.
The younger mobster Aslam (Imran Khan), a pre-teen biker who was picked off the mean streets by the big-talking mafia don more than a decade ago and turned into a trusted lieutenant, has grown up swearing blind allegiance to his mentor.
Trouble erupts when the two men fall in love with the same girl, Jasmine Sheikh (Sonakshi Sinha), a Kashmiri lass who has come down to Mumbai to act in the movies.
Once Upon Ay Time in Mumbai Dobaara! is equal parts a gangster flick and a love triangle. Two films for the price of one? Not quite, because neither half rises to any great heights in terms of drama.
Rather sad, because there is a great deal in the film that is quite impressive, not the least among which is the fact that the storyline, despite the occasional flaccid passage, remains completely focused on the three principal characters.
Many a Bollywood gangster drama tends to lose its way in a maze of empty bluster, item numbers and needless bust-ups and stunts.
Director Milan Luthria makes it a point not to go down that path. He opts for a more restrained approach to the rivalry between two larger-than-life gangsters over a desirable ingenue, who walks into the crossfire without ever realizing how bad things are going to get for her.
Stylishly mounted, Once Upon Ay Time in Mumbai Dobaara! is shot in muted hues, which captures both the street-level dread and the soaring sparkle of 1980s Bombay with consistent sharpness.
What robs the film of genuine traction is that the action seems to unfold in a disinfected bubble that is out of bounds for the urban realities of the era.
Moreover, there is very little chemistry between Sonakshi and the two male leads.
The only time sparks actually fly is when Jasmine and Aslam lie under a small rail bridge and watch the wheels of a running train as it races by, generating electro-magnetic flickers in the darkness.
What makes matters worse is a overly sterilised narrative that presents every hint of passion between the girl and the two men only as flights of the febrile male imagination running riot to the accompaniment of ‘romantic’ songs.
One of the two men is unable to express his feelings for the girl until it is too late; the other propositions her with as much grace as a village yokel, hurling gifts, including a penthouse on the city’s highest skyscraper, at her.
At no point in the story does one feel that the two rivals in love would care enough for the woman to actually put their long-nurtured bonding at stake and bay for each other’s blood.
This is Akshay Kumar’s film all the way – he struts around with the cocky confidence that he owns every frame. Just a degree of moderation might have stood in better stead.
It is for Imran Khan, who sheds his milksop lover-boy image and takes on a tougher guise for the second time in his career after Matru Ki Bijlee.., that this film could prove to be a breakthrough. He provides evidence that he can handle a wider range of roles than he is usually allowed to play.
Sonakshi, too, is given generous play by the screenplay, and she measures up to the demands of the role.
In the supporting cast, Sonali Bendre Behl in a special appearance and Pitobash as Aslam’s childhood pal Dedh Taang, stand out.
For all its flaws, Once Upon Ay Time in Mumbai Dobaara! isn’t only for Akshay Kumar fans. This Independence Day weekend, feel free to catch this gangster drama that masquerades as a violent love story.