Director: Kanishk Varma
Cast: Vidyut Jammwal, Rukmini Maitra, Neha Dhupia, Chandan Roy Sanyal, Chandan Roy, Adrija Sinha, Kiran Karmarkar, Arsh Merchant
Running Time: 117 min.
By Henry McKeand
Early in Sanak, as our hero Vivaan (Vidyut Jammwal) grabs something in his living room, the camera lingers on three carefully placed DVDs:
Die Hard, Speed, and John Wick.
More than just an unsubtle nod to director Kanishk Varma’s influences, this feels like a mission statement. Die Hard, of course, is the most obvious. Sanak, which follows Vivaan as he has to fight through a hospital under siege by mercenaries to save his wife, follows the hostages-in-a-single-location formula of countless post-McTiernan action flicks. The inclusion of Speed is also easy to figure out; it’s another film with a single-minded dedication to a simple and outlandish concept. Finishing the trio out with John Wick, then, hints at brutal, fast-paced combat to come.
But if Varma wanted to really give viewers a sense of what’s in store for them, he would have been better off using a Golden Harvest release like Dragons Forever or Police Story as his third film. Because while Sanak’s script follows 90s Western blockbuster tropes to a tee, its fight choreography is firmly rooted in the payoff-heavy kung fu comedy of those 80s Hong Kong classics. Yes, believe it or not, one of the best modern throwbacks to classic Jackie and Sammo is this underseen Hindi thriller from 2021.
We have Vidyut Jammwal, India’s number one martial arts star, to thank. He practices the Indian fighting style Kalaripayattu, but his on-screen style owes a lot to those aforementioned kung fu icons. He blends their “use anything in the room to win” scrappiness with a distinctly Indian flair, and his dizzying athleticism is consistently jaw-dropping. Here, he’s working with the choreography of Andy Long Nguyen*, the Vietnamese stunt coordinator and performer who previously worked as action director on Jammwal’s Commando 3. Nguyen’s inventive and often hilarious choreo sets the action sequences apart from the overly serious Raid–worship that is so popular today. The cherry on top is Varma’s direction, which is refreshingly clear and unshowy; your eyes are always on the flying limbs.
*You may recognize Nguyen as the star of Luc Van Tien
All of this excitement fits into a story so simple it barely needs explaining. On the day Vivaan has to pick up his wife (Rukmini Maitra) from the hospital after an operation, bad guys storm the place with guns. Vivaan, naturally, happens to be a badass MMA trainer with a heroic streak, and everything goes just about the way you expect.
The execution is what matters for something like this, and the script by Ashish P. Verma is smart enough to get the ball rolling quickly while also establishing some comfy character quirks. Jammwal and Maitra play nicely off of each other, and you actually end up caring about most of the side characters caught up in the crazy hostage situation. Jammwal, especially, lends his mostly generic hero a genuine warmth and decency. You almost believe he’s a normal guy.
Until he starts fighting, that is. Jammwal’s acrobatics are astounding, and he makes them look simultaneously impossible and effortless. But he’s far from playing some perfect, magical superhero. Thankfully, Nguyen is a graduate of the Jackie Chan stunt team, which means he understands how to put his performers through the ringer. The best martial arts films understand that there’s a one-to-one correlation between the excitement of a given scene and the amount of pain inflicted on the hero. That’s why, in addition to being constantly outnumbered, Vivaan has virtually no experience using guns or explosives. In the midst of it all, he even has to be wary of his own low blood sugar (which, without spoiling anything, culminates in the funniest and most creative scene).
Since he’s at such a disadvantage, he’s forced to utilize the environment in increasingly creative ways. In this regard, Nguyen makes his similarly crafty mentor Jackie proud. Sanak finds a weapon in anything: a mobility walker, a hub cap, a resistance band…an MRI machine. This, combined with the lightning-fast punches and kicks, results in some of the best fight choreography in recent memory.
When people aren’t fighting each other, it’s still pretty entertaining. The plot serves up generous helpings of disaster movie conventions, from precocious kids and a put-upon police officer (Neha Dhupia) to comic relief sidekicks and a vicious villain (Chandan Roy Sanyal). Things never really drag, either, even when the screenplay rushes over its own plot holes. For the uninitiated, it’s also a good introduction to Bollywood action; it’s under two hours and saves its only musical sequence for the credits.
Not as if geography matters when it comes to bodies in kinetic, violent motion. And Sanak’s motion is so clever and funny and satisfying, AKA everything the current action climate needs more of, that it’s hard to imagine anyone not enjoying it.
Henry McKeand’s Rating: 8.5/10