“Rocky” movie review: Arun Matheshwaran announces his arrival with bloody and brilliant revenge drama

Shot after shot, scene after scene, “Rocky”, with its superb writing and even better staging, keeps hitting you.

A wide shot. A car is in the center of the frame. Rocky (Vasanth Ravi) stands next to it. There are men with sickles and knives at one end. There are also men with sickles and knives at the other end. There is nowhere to go. Rocky is checkmate. Or so we’re thinking up to Rocky – no, I’m not going to spoil this moment for you. You have to watch it; look at it and be stunned. You have to watch it to experience the intoxication of a film that may well be talked about in the coming days or weeks, perhaps.

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The movie isn’t just about this climax. Shot after shot, scene after scene, Rocky, with its superb writing and even better staging, never ceases to hit you. It is impossible not to be stunned by its glow.

Arun Matheshwaran’s debut film is probably one of the best early films in Tamil cinema. Unfortunately, there were not many people in the multiplex room in Coimbatore where I watched the film. Arun, perhaps, is familiar with this lukewarm first answer. The first film he worked in as an assistant director received a similar reception but then developed a cult following. Remember Aaranya Kaandam?

Certain things about the cinema of Arun Matheshwaran recall Thiagarajan Kumararaja (whom he calls his “boss”). Especially the naughty humor. For example, the right arms of the ganglords are usually called ‘valadhu kai ‘ (right hand). But, in this movie, Rocky calls him ‘valadhu kottai‘(right testicle). There’s another shot involving testicles that’s deliciously dark and hilarious – it rightly received a standing ovation from a few members of the audience. In another scene, a man slits another’s throat as a catchy SPB Telugu song plays in the background.

“The spirit of Tarantino”

The spirit of Quentin Tarantino is also inescapable. The movie, for example, is segmented into chapters, and each chapter has a title written in large print. In one scene, Rocky talks about God before slaughtering a guy’s head with a hammer, which reminded me of Jules Winnfield (Samuel L Jackson) quoting Ezekiel 25:17 before spraying bullets into the torso of a man.

‘Rocky’ (2021)

  • Director: Arun Matheshwaran
  • To throw: Vasanth Ravi, Bharathiraja, Raveena Ravi, Rohini
  • Scenario: After a 17-year prison sentence, Rocky, in search of a new beginning, goes in search of his sister, Amudha. But the nightmares of his violent past keep chasing him
  • Duration: 129 minutes

It’s understandable that this dark, violent, and funny neo-noir action drama is somewhat reminiscent of Tarantino and Kumararaja. But, surprisingly, some parts of the film also reminded me of Terrence Mallick’s film Tree of life. Arun isn’t afraid (or is forgiving enough) to veer into an arthouse zone. There is a black and white photo of the protagonist standing in the middle of shallow water, looking at a mirror. In fact, around 40% of the film is in black and white.

Shreyaas Krishna’s photographic work is splendid; the frame, the light and the color intensify the drama that unfolds on the screen. There is a particular fight sequence in which Rocky faces off against several goons in a multi-story building under construction at night. The goons run to Rocky and get killed – one is thrown from the second floor to death. A long continuous shot is used so that we can see three floors, lit in red and blue neon, where all of the action takes place. Slowly we see that this is the point of view of the antagonist, Manimaran (played by a superb Bharathiraja). It is one of the best action sequences in Tamil cinema.

Arun and Shreyaas use a lot of long takes which immerses us in Rocky’s world, and Darbuka Siva’s minimal background helps a lot as well. In one of the gruesome fight scenes, where Rocky smashes people’s heads with a hammer, Siva uses veena and mridangam! (Maybe ‘horrible’ is a redundant adjective here because Rocky is the kind of guy who doesn’t just kill, he slaughters you, tears your chest apart, takes your guts out, and wreathes you.)

Read also | ‘Rocky’ actor Vasanth Ravi speaks out on revenge drama

Vasanth Ravi delivers a great performance as Rocky, who is a bit of an enigmatic character. He contemplates a lot, like a poet, on time, life and destiny. He wants to escape violence after serving a 17-year sentence (so much so that he has even given up meat because it is about taking the life of an animal through violence). But if it is provoked, it will cut your tongue and smash your head with a hammer. Vasanth’s brooding, cold eyes, tousled beard, and calm demeanor give Rocky this enigmatic quality.

Bharathiraja as Manimaran is also brilliant. He was great as a villain in Aayutha Ezhuthu, but its performance is a bit better this time around. Manimaran is driven by revenge but doesn’t let rage cloud his thinking, and Bharathiraja, with his baritone and self-assured presence, indicates that he’s not a man you want to play with. Reena Ravi (like Amudha), Rohini (like Malli) and the other supporting characters also did a good job.

Revenge dramas have been around for generations in Tamil cinema. There are dozens of good and bad. Corn Rocky will probably be among the best, because it is spectacularly gory and poetic at the same time.

Rocky is currently playing in theaters

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