Lokesh Kanagaraj mentions David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence in the opening credits of his new movie. It’s clever to pre-empt allegations of plagiarism by acknowledging the Hollywood inspiration behind Leo, but also too clever-by-half.
The Tamil action thriller, which has also been dubbed into Hindi, unites Kanagaraj and his Master lead actor Vijay. The seemingly ageless movie star plays Parthiban, who runs a cafe in Himachal Pradesh and rescues errant wild animals on the side. He is the very picture of the docile husband to Sathya (Trisha) and doting father to their kids Sidharth and Madhi.
An unprovoked attack on Parthiban suggests that not only does he know a thing or two about defending himself but that he might actually be the gangster Leo Das, long thought to be dead. Parthiban insists it is a case of mistaken identity. Sathya believes Parthiban, as does his friend, the ranger Joshy (Gautham Vasudev Menon). But Leo’s father Anthony (Sanjay Dutt) and uncle Harold (Arjun Sarja) are not convinced.
Characters and moments loop back to Kanagaraj’s immodestly named “Lokesh Cinematic Universe”, in which he is attempting to create a Marvel-style set of films linked by events and populated with some of cinema’s biggest names. Among the better thrills in Leo, which starts sluggishly, takes too long to reach its destination, and kicks into gear in fits and spurts, is the trail of Easter eggs laid out by Kanagaraj and co-writers Rathna Kumar and Deeraj Vaidy. The device is lazy, but it perks up flagging interest levels just when it’s needed.
On its own, Leo is routine business, sweetened by Vijay’s screen charisma, marked by Kanagaraj’s skill with slick, propulsive storytelling, and animated by the daring stunts directed by Anbariv (the brothers Anbumani and Arivumani). The animal kingdom that Parthiban has seemingly left behind but that invades his present includes a cuddly hyena and a clever eagle.
Vijay is compelling as the family man who might or might not have a shady past (the question is ultimately irrelevant). Vijay looms large over a film designed to fit into whatever else is forthcoming in the LCU. Kanagaraj might have a master plan in place, but Vijay proves that he is the master of his own universe.