This is just the beginning, Vikram (Kamal Haasan) says at the point at which the interval card flashes on the screen.

Right he is. Vikram, a former undercover agent who leads a vigilante group that targets drug traffickers, is used to issuing commands and having them obeyed. The 173-minute Tamil film named after him obeys, being almost entirely prologue for its pre-interval section. Well over an hour is devoted to the mystery of just who Vikram is.

Hot on his trail are government investigator Amar (Fahadh Faasil) and druglord Santhanam (Vijay Sethupathi), who is missing a vital consignment and is being harassed by his unseen boss Rolex.

Writer-director Lokesh Kanagaraj brings to a routine crime thriller both the flourish he displayed in his 2019 Tamil hit Kaithi and his skill with moulding movie stars to his vision (apart from the three A-listers, there’s an electric cameo by a fourth). Kanagaraj’s Vikram, which has also been dubbed in Hindi, is part of a “Kaithi universe”. Some plot points and characters are derived from that film, while the climax suggests more spin-offs.

Vikram is spilling over with gruesome violence, elaborately choreographed action scenes, dark humour, plot twists, and at least one cute child. Amar has a girlfriend too, but it’s another female character who is likely to draw the cheers.

Fittingly for a film involving drugs, there’s a narcotic quality to many moments. From the substance that gives Santhanam the ability to channel his inner kung fu master to Anirudh Ravichander’s pulsating Tamil-English soundtrack, Vikram is always big on the adrenaline rush.

The delirium increases in the post-interval section, which is essentially a massive stand-off between Santhanam, Vikram and Amar. The weaponry get more elaborate, the blood flows, and the action is dialled up as Kanagaraj aims for a literal blast-off.

Vijay Sethupathi in Vikram (2022). Courtesy Raaj Kamal Films International.

Not all of the 173 minutes is earned, especially since the plot can be dashed off on a paper napkin. (For all his intelligence, Amar conveniently misses a vital clue into Vikram’s past.) Kanagaraj is sometimes a bit too busy mounting his Kaithiverse to make Vikram a satisfying standalone film in itself.

Although designed as a comeback vehicle for Kamal Haasan, who is also the producer, Vikram keeps its fandom in check. Haasan plays the veteran vigilante with panache and authority. He also gets to deliver soliloquies (some of them in English, of course), and the film does come to a halt when he is declaiming, but it also moves on to the other stars in the blood-splattered sky.

Fahadh Faasil brings to Amar an alert, chameleon-like quality and a ruthless edge. Vijay Sethupathi’s Santhanam has two gold teeth, a generous midriff and a colourful wardrobe. But Sethupathi’s proven ability to deliver dashed-odd lines and convey deeply felt malice make his character an object of fear rather than parody.

The notable actors in the extended cast include Chemban Vinod Jose as Amar’s boss. The master of ceremonies in the ensemble piece is undeniably the director himself. In a film about the levels of deception, the biggest con job involves Kanagaraj’s ability to retain attention during an overlong and often brutal film.

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Vikram (2022).