Director Nelson’s new film with Rajinikanth is constantly warning you that something is about to break bad. But the fearful anticipation that should have been built through smart plotting is outsourced instead to the departments that execute stunts and supply fake blood.

The Tamil action drama is stacked with characters who cannot make a move without accompanying it with either an exaggerated emotion or a dastardly act of violence. Heads are split open or separated from necks. Every attempt is made to shock or thrill – often both and at the same time. The outsourcing tendency extends to the film’s 72-year-old hero who, after displaying a couple of instances of his virility, settles down to become the equivalent of an overseer at a factory.

On the surface, Muthu (Rajinikanth) is a retired grandpa who dotes on his grandson, buys the groceries and avoids conflict. The inner beast in Muthu is awakened when his police officer son Arjun (Vasanth Ravi) is held hostage by antiques smuggler Varma (Vinayakan).

In case you hadn’t realised it, Varma is mean (he dunks his adversaries in vats of sulphuric acid, for one thing). But since Varma is up against a hero played by Rajinikanth, there is never any danger of his bug-eyed rants being taken seriously.

This is my last warning to you, Varma says about a hundred times as Muthu goes on the rampage to rescue Arjun. Muthu has at his disposal a private army whose members represent several language film industries in an attempt to display a pan-Indian spirit. There are cameos by Mohanlal for Malayalam, Shiva Rajkumar for Kannada, Jackie Shroff and Makarand Deshpande for Hindi.

Vinayakan in Jailer (2023). Courtesy Sun Pictures.

At the heart of a severely padded, 168-minute narrative is a story pulled out from the mothballs. Nelson’s talent for nihilistic humour and clever character sketches worked best in his directorial debut Kolamaavu Kokila (2018). The slickly filmed Jailer has some sharp scenes of crackpot humour and a few quirky types that salvage an increasingly dull homage to Rajinikanth’s screen persona.

Yogi Babu hilariously plays the reluctant charioteer of Muthu’s war. The Telugu actor Sunil is the grandly named Blast Mohan. But the Blast Mohan track, while amusing in itself, completely derails Jailer, from which it never recovers.

Who can take an avenging hero seriously when the threats are so feeble? A high-wattage star can bring only so much value to an indifferently written movie. Jailer shares with Lokesh Kanagaraj’s 2022 blockbuster Vikram a senior hero on a vendetta mission, Anirudh’s music, and a parallel moral universe where the normal rules don’t apply.

But Vikram had a propulsive energy, people whom you might actually care for, and a far more accomplished integration of plot and style. Jailer’s look is guided by a central framing approach. The actors are squarely in the middle of frame, daring you to look anywhere else while they threaten to do terrible things.

One visage dominates. This is the only face you need to see, a smirking Muthu lectures his terrified wife (Ramya Krishnan) and daughter-in-law (Mirnaa Menon) when they finally glimpse his true form. It’s only the latest instance of grandstanding in an arena packed with adoring fans and a few easily disposable detractors.

Jailer (2023).