Vijay's 'Master' review: An entertaining first half let down by a dragging second

Actors Vijay and Vijay Sethupathy shoulder an action packed movie with a meandering and predictable screenplay.
Vijay's 'Master' review: An entertaining first half let down by a dragging second
Vijay's 'Master' review: An entertaining first half let down by a dragging second

Light and Dark, Victim and Violator, Addict and Teetotaller. These are all attributes that Tamil cinema strongly divides between its leads, allowing an audience to easily discern between a film's protagonist and its antagonist. But Lokesh Kanagaraj's latest outing as director and writer, Master, seeks to blur these lines as the definition of these words expand to define both these roles, only allowing one factor to define the hero and the villain —  intention.

Going by this, Master starring Vijay and Vijay Sethupathi definitely has the intention to both entertain and pardon the pun, educate. But the question is, does Master manage to achieve both?

The storyline itself starts off by giving the villain a backstory. Much like Kaithi and Maanagaram, Lokesh has continued his trademark of only introducing the hero about 15 minutes into the film, allowing for the story to be laid out first for the audience. In this flashback, we get glimpses of Bhavani's (Vijay Sethupathi) backstory in a juvenile justice home, to explain why he embraced a life of crime. Here, he starts off as a victim who soon turns ruthless to protect himself. But if becoming a crime lord were this easy and lucrative, I'm not sure why the rest of us are busy typing away at computers all day to earn our living.

Bhavani's very first scene has him surrounded by fire, but instead of being beaten to submission, he rises like a phoenix from the flames, using the same juvenile detention system that showed him no mercy to build an empire of trucks, drugs and thuggery. Mostly dressed in blacks and with a red hue tinting all his frames and shots, Bhavani is represented as the devil himself — pure evil with a punch that can knock out a mere mortal.

So, in contrast, you would expect a virtuous hero, complete with a 'god' aesthetic to counter the devil. But J.D (Vijay) (and yes also short for whisky Jack Daniels!), who even enters his introductory scene feet first in the air, is anything but that. This stylish, man-purse swinging, alcoholic and unreliable professor quickly brings a smile to your lips with just his sheer audacity and complete lack of decorum. But of course, Lokesh is forced to introduce 'Thalapathy' with a high octane fight scene stretching across multiple modes of private and public transport in Chennai, taking the notion of star-vehicle a bit too far.

As a college professor, J.D's swagger is almost a stumble as he is perpetually recovering from his previous evening's indulgences. In fact, his students are forced to constantly cover for him and pull him out of a stupor to aid situations. To the filmmaker's credit, however, this alcoholism is not glorified and is often chastised through the film, with J.D shown as unresponsive at crucial times. And when he is posted as a teacher at the juvenile detention centre used by Bhavani to carry out illegal activities, his alcoholism turns dangerous for the children already in the clutches of Bhavani.

The premise, thus far, is set with care and consideration by the director, creating anticipation for the clash of the titans. But where Lokesh falters, is in striking a balance between the plot and Vijay's persona. At several instances, the film leaves plot lines hanging and instead chooses to devote time to impress upon the audience the power of the hero and the 'mass' that he shoulders. What the director forgets, is that unlike in a Kaithi where the audience speculated over whether Karthi will make it out of all the violence alive, here there is not even a question of anything but triumph for the hero.  The idea of the two men being equals isn't convincing. Thus, with an important element of filmmaking  — suspense  — lost, the writing leads to a climax which is predictable. But while he has managed to conceive a powerful central thread of main characters who are set to collide, Lokesh fails to create a meaningful journey towards this.

In an event ahead of the film's release, Vijay Sethupathi had said that from his perspective, his character is the hero of the film. And given the importance lent to his backstory and the thought behind his character, we cannot help but deliberate on this. J.D in contrast is given a weak cause for his alcoholism. While the comedy and suspense leading to the reveal is enjoyable, the final reason itself falls flat, making you wish it had remained unknown to the audience. It almost seems like an after-thought to explain the protagonist's weakness. Bhavani's strength and sociopathic behaviour make sense to the audience, but J.D's motives and reactions remain illogical for the most part. As a mere teacher, he seems to possess immense physical strength and an unexplained penchant for violence.

Despite these flaws, the first half of the film entertains endlessly, with humour and action in equal parts. Bur the second half struggles to hurtle towards the actual climax. Where the plot fails, the director has relied on long action sequences as a substitute for story but this soon grows stale and does not carry the screenplay forward sufficiently. Even an ode to Ghilli within the juvenile home, while initially thrilling, drags on, even as a crucial plot point revealed just seconds before, remains unaddressed. In another instance, when Vijay drops his pet cat to the floor at a crime scene, it happily saunters away much to our concern but neither the character nor director seem to be bothered by the run-away pet, even long after the trauma of the crime.

In parts however, Lokesh does deliver moments of brilliance. As the second half proceeds, our protagonist embarks on a path befitting his role,  while the villain becomes progressively more evil, with even horns sprouting from his head at one point!

Both J.D and Bhavani are shown as different as chalk and cheese  — one is a drunkard who teaches students to face the real world, the other is a teetotaller who keeps children locked away in prison and drugged to suit his own purpose. The common factor that unites them, however, is that they both seem to believe that violence is the ultimate solution to their problems. This means that Master offers very little for the brain to marvel at in terms of clever plot lines or twists. Instead, scene after scene turns predictable, with only Vijay's charm and Vijay Sethupathi's nonchalant attitude shouldering the film.

The two actors have equaled each other in performance, carrying even monotonous scenes to an acceptable finish. Vijay plays a callous professor with ease, leaving you in splits with his stories. He is a joy to watch on screen.  Vijay Sethupathi meanwhile maintains his usual stoic expression and manner of dialogue delivery as he leaves behind a bloody trail of corpses everywhere he goes. While the posters for the film displayed incredible chemistry between the actors, their final meeting in the movie falls short. With the victor already determined, there is little to look forward to. But the actors have given the film their all, convincingly portraying the characters despite the evident holes in the screenplay.

Their efforts are only helped by music director, Anirudh Ravichander, who has scored some of his best tunes for the film. His background scores elevate even the most mundane moments, and make the better scenes sparkle. The songs are organically slipped into the movie, instead of a sudden cut from a gangster neighbourhood to Germany's mountains. The film's cinematography lends it dark tones as crime after crime unfolds in the presence of Bhavani. When J.D comes on screen, however, light blue tones made an appearance. The themes play majorly around night and day to represent the aura of the two characters. Even the juvenile home around which the film is centred, sees a change in colour tones as J.D attempts to make life better for the children.

Other characters that form a part of the large cast, including Malavika Mohanan, add to the storyline and help the plot move forward as opposed to merely being an appendage to the protagonist. Malavika takes turns between playing a wide-eyed professor and a fierce social activist, finally landing somewhere in-between as the film progresses. Andrea has an action sequence but eventually settles to be 'saved' by the hero.

The children in the film have all given impressive performances, leaving you in pain over their suffering. What we really wish for though, is for their 'professor' to perhaps give them a book or two, or even just one actual academic lesson, given that he is after all, their 'Master'. You would expect him to show them a path, where the solution to every problem is not 'violence'. 

And to answer our own question, Master is a professor who wants to teach two different subjects, only, he's unable to finish the syllabus for either. 

Disclaimer: This review was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the series/film. TNM Editorial is independent of any business relationship the organisation may have with producers or any other members of its cast or crew.

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