More often than not, critiquing a Salman Khan starrer is like casting stones at an armoured combat vehicle. No matter how hard one tries to make a dent, it is doomed to be an exercise in futility. The fortified fighting machine on wheels trundles on regardless.
Ek Tha Tiger poses no such worries. A smartly scripted, crisply edited and stylishly mounted love story cloaked in the garb of an espionage thriller, it makes enough sense for the most part to blow away the air of scepticism.
While it is essentially a genre film designed to carpet bomb the audience with all the known tricks of the crowd-pleasing trade, it distances itself appreciably from the established norms of the action-packed Salman Khan movies that have raked in big bucks in recent years.
Ek Tha Tiger delivers implausible superhero stunts galore. However, its punch lines are kept on a leash and the romantic bonding between the hero and his lady love, which drives much of the film, isn?t allowed to degenerate into treacly kitsch.
But no, that isn?t to suggest that Salman Khan fans would have reason to feel shortchanged. He is his usual swaggering, larger-than-life self in Ek Tha Tiger, performing gravity and death-defying acts while romancing a pretty woman whose love for the stars in the heavens makes her the perfect Yash Raj Films heroine.
Wanted, Dabangg, Ready, Bodyguard and now, Ek Tha Tiger ? the failsafe formula appears as enduring as Salman?s eponymous secret agent who scours the world in search of enemies of the nation and dispatches them to the devil without breaking into a sweat.
Acting wise, the superstar delivers no major surprises barring the sustained restraint that he exercises in fleshing out the persona of a tough spy who has no real name until it is revealed right at the end of the film. The role is tailor-made for Salman and he goes through the motions without missing a trick.
He is aided, of course, by the no-nonsense screenplay (jointly authored by director Kabir Khan and journalist-turned-lyricist Neelesh Misra). The believable twists and turns that it throws up all the way through to the end keep the pot on the boil even when the heat threatens to dip.
The action sequences, shot on locations as far apart as Zakho in northern Iraq, Istanbul Dublin and Havana, are invested with a high cool quotient. Ek Tha Tiger has stunts that come close to taking your breath away. It?s a Salman Khan vehicle after all.
Filmed on locations around the world, including parts of the world where Hindi cinema has rarely been to before, the story zeroes in on a RAW agent called Tiger who is sent to Dublin to investigate the mysterious ways of an anti-missile technology expert of Indian origin, Professor Anwar Jamal Kidwai (Roshan Seth in a cameo).
The scientist is suspected of passing on classified information to the Pakistani defence establishment. So the Indian spy befriends the part-time caretaker of his home, Zoya (Katrina Kaif) and his pugnacious pug (the dog is called Rocket).
No mission is impossible for our man Tiger, and once he marks out his territory and goes in for the kill, his foes, no matter how wily they are, end up in body bags.
However, in this tale of a valiant spy and his all-out war to save the woman he loves from the intelligence agencies of two nations, the outcome isn?t wholly predictable. The hero takes uncharted detours to get to his eventual goal.
With Katrina Kaif paired with Salman for the first time since the debacle of 2008?s Yuvraaj, the romantic track is given substantial footage in Ek Tha Tiger.
When the spy struggles with the conflict between head and heart and weighs the pros and cons of falling in love with a girl as shadowy as him, the film tends to slow down a little. But such scenes are few and far between.
The narrative gets back into the swing of things quickly enough thanks to the sharply focussed screenplay.
With actors like Girish Karnad (as the RAW chief) and Ranvir Shorey (as Tiger?s trusted operational aide) in the supporting cast, the Ek Tha Tiger gallery of characters rarely gets swamped out of the picture by the starry mannerisms of the male lead.
Ek Tha Tiger isn?t what one whould rate as great cinema, but it isn?t just harmless fun. The pacifist message dovetailed into its core lends the film a far greater degree of relevance than Bollywood spy thrillers generally strive for.
I am going with three and a half stars. Ek Tha Tiger has enough zing, visual and otherwise, to keep you in your seats for its runtime of a little over two hours.