We have woken up to the thrills of spy-based action films with Kabir Khan’s Ek Tha Tiger back in 2012. That very year Saif Ali Khan himself had tried his hand at the genre with Sriram Raghavan’s Agent Vinod. Now the two men have come together for a spy based action thriller; together, they add to the wishful thinking of killing Dawood Ibrahim on reel in Nikhil Advani’s D-Day (2013), and present to the audience, Phantom.
Nevertheless, this going into Pakistan and killing those who terrorize us across the border is a fragile premise. It needs to be preceded by a longish disclaimer clarifying that no communal sentiments are intended to be hurt and after all, it is a work of fiction, meant only to entertain. Phantom is capable of entertaining, but not so much with its big action set-pieces, as in its quieter moments of manipulation and manoeuvres, where the humanness that is uncharacteristic of the deadpan spy faces come bubbling over.
The film begins with s stock footage of the 26/11 massacre and cuts to a rather abrupt car-chase on the streets of Chicago which ends in Saif’s character throwing a man off a bridge. The whole affair looks very staged, which the bemused audience find through the length of the film that it was. As is the trend with such films, the plot cuts back and forth in time revealing in bits what the whole hoopla is about.
We go through the corridors of RAW where a very formidable Sabyasachi Chakroborty is the chief. They flag an off-the-record mission to take out the masterminds in Lashkar-e–Toiba who had planned the Mumbai attacks in 2008. For this, they rope in a very reluctant Daniyal Khan (Saif Ali), who feeds chickens somewhere in the snowy climes of the Himalayas. But there was more to his life, as is the case with such stand-offish chicken feeders in the middle of nowhere. We learn he is a disgraced officer thrown out of the Indian army for allegedly deserting his men, and post, at the line of duty. Since Khan has no records whatsoever, long estranged from his parents, he is perfect for these isolated killings, leaving no trace in his wake, just like a ‘phantom’.
The film unfurls like a cat-and-mouse game, where it alternates between Daniyal trailing his targets or the ISI chasing him. Somewhere in the middle, Katrina Kaif breezes in as Nawaz Mistry, who helps Daniyal identify his target. Saif Ali tries to look cold and menacing, he is nowhere close to what he had pulled off in Raghavan’s Ek Hasina Thi, in 2004. While Katrina has apparently come to excel at action films, the only reaction her character evoked was annoyance, as she was as pretty as ever, her luscious tresses framed to near perfection; but her long open hair, billowing in the dusty lanes of Syria, was distracting in the capacity of a running shampoo commercial.
The editing is mostly crisp and hitting, although the camera seems to fidget too much especially during the spy-thriller-ish sequences. The film only sways in its pace whenever the unnecessary backstories of the lead characters come interrupt the plot. Thankfully the audiences were spared an elaborate falling-in-love sub-plot.
Kabir Khan gets it better with his lesser characters, be it the over-enthusiastic RAW officer who suggests the idea behind Khan’s mission, or the gold-hearted RAW spy who had been running an eatery in Lahore, or the dignified Amina Bi, whose son was claimed as a ‘martyr’ by the Lashkar-e-Toiba. It is at these times the Kabir Khan of the Kabul Express days betrays himself.
The climax is very tightly orchestrated and the action understandable, but apart from that the action scenes especially the ones in Syria come off as forced and confusing, with everyone shooting at one another, in a happy free-for-all. That said, the film will find its audience in the combined ranks of those who cheered at the killing of Goldman in D-Day and the more general ones who love gun-fights in haute strife-torn locales.