I know jack shit about contemporary Indian culture and I’m sure as shit not going to pretend I learned anything important from Tiger 3. That’s OK. He blows things up, looks awesome and loves his wife. It’s a universal language.
My familiarity with Bollywood was, until fairly recently, informed entirely by weird knockoffs produced in the 1970s. Like most white Americans, watching RRR last year gave me a greater level of general interest in the nation’s cinematic output; like a smaller, but still significant, number of Americans, watching Pathaan earlier this year blew the door wide open for me.
That Shah Rukh Khan (SRK) action flick is the fourth installment of the YRF Spy Universe, a series of interconnected big-budget action movies from production company Yash Raj Films. It’s a mishmash of every imaginable trope from early 2000s spy-action films, and as someone who was 10 years old during that era, it really hit the spot. Perhaps more significantly, it turned me on to the oeuvre of SRK, which I spent the rest of the year slowly exploring; look, a three-hour runtime can take me multiple evenings these days. Simply put, SRK rocks! There’s a reason why he’s one of Bollywood’s most prominent figures, and his simultaneous ability to be a goofy dork and an action badass made his emergence into this level of over-the-top Bond riffs pretty stunning.
Because I spent the rest of the year watching mostly SRK films, that meant procrastinating on the other YRF Spy Universe movies until a few weekends ago. A huge mistake! Turns out it’s a series full of the best possible action excess, led by iconic Indian actors swolled up to oblivion. The experience of discovering this interlinked narrative emulated the feelings of the early Marvel Cinematic Universe for me.
Ek Tha Tiger (2012) isn’t an all-out action film so much as it is a more traditional romantic comedy with action, introducing Tiger (Salman Khan) and Zoya (Katrina Kaif) as respective Indian RAW and Pakistani ISI agents who fall in love amid their country’s conflict. The 2017 sequel, Tiger Zinda Hai, is almost a First Blood to Rambo: First Blood Part II shift in tone: Suddenly, Tiger and Zoya are brought into simultaneous missions for their respective countries to rescue nuns from ISIS, and it ends with Tiger blowing away hordes of enemies with an M-60 machine gun. The last pre-Pathaan entry in the interconnected story is 2019’s WAR, relatively disconnected from either the Tiger films of Pathaan but featuring a nuclear apocalypse, face-swapping and a car battle on ice. Just like Die Another Day, you say? I mean, fuck yeah, it is. And just like Die Another Day, it kind of rules.
There wasn’t much direct connection between films until Pathaan, when Tiger showed up for a scene-stealing cameo to help his friend out of a jam. I guess the question becomes: What does that make Tiger 3? Is it a setup for the already announced Tiger vs. Pathaan crossover film or is it a legitimate sequel to Tiger Zinda Hai, perhaps introducing another tone shift to the ongoing romance between the titular hero and his beautiful, deadly wife?
It’s mostly the latter. This is a Tiger movie through and through, with the exception of a totally awesome 20-minute action sequence featuring Pathaan returning Tiger’s favor from before. Despite the marketing that promised some kind of conflict between Tiger and Zoya, that only lasts a brief period of time and, for the most part, the two work together throughout the film. Frankly, that’s all I wanted from them.
This time around, a shadowy threat from Zoya’s past with the ISI comes calling, threatening to derail peace talks between India and Pakistan and re-establish a military dictatorship in the latter country. He kidnaps Tiger and Zoya’s son, Junior, to manipulate the two into helping him steal nuclear launch codes and assassinate the Pakistani Prime Minister. It’s pretty rote spy storytelling, frankly — not quite as colorful and interesting as the nun plotline in Tiger Zinda Hai.
However, the film itself feels more balanced than its predecessor, which opened strong and slowed down to introduce Tiger’s team of allies and their mission-planning sequences. Tiger 3 integrates his broad supporting players in a more consistent, interesting fashion as they work to help him and later clear his name. It leads to a lot of satisfying action bits and even some surprisingly grim death sequences for likable characters. The action is choreographed with a bit more clarity than Tiger Zinda Hai, and the villain himself is more dastardly — even if he’s still pretty shallow in traditional 1990s fashion.
The YRF spy movies are all massive, goofy, bloated takes on the brand of action films that were prominent a few decades ago, thrown into a blender with contemporary action techniques. They’re ballets of slow-motion, endless machine-gun magazines and patriotic sentiment. The interpersonal melodrama is all broad emotion without the pretense of serialized development found in American superhero stories or emotional depth in in films like John Wick. Tiger and Pathaan regularly break the fourth wall, discussing their box office successes and their ages; both of the Khans, as they’re known, are in their mid-50s and seem profoundly juiced. It’s noteworthy that both Khans’ biceps are titanic and SRK’s six-pack is heavenly, but neither plays the type of sex god seen in the films YRF is ripping off. Both come from the Dwayne Johnson school of “big body used for killing, not wild loving” school of international box-office acceptability. But these two actually make it work. It’s all in good fun, if you’re able to go along with it.
Fortunately, Tiger 3 is just kind of my jam. It’s excessive and seemingly endless in the moment. Tiger and Zoya’s romance is held together by the chemistry of the leads rather than story or script. Every 15 minutes or so, Tiger does something badass while his theme plays — an audiovisual refrain that pumps dopamine through my body in just the right way. The only real flaw of the film is the lack of noteworthy musical segments. Each previous YRF has had at least one certified banger (Pathaan has two!), but neither song is noteworthy here. Even the musical sequence is shot with all the passion of a commercial and does little to carry the story forward in the moment.
Aside from that, a hearty recommendation from me for Tiger 3 — an essentially perfect delivery of creative action and triumphant ass-beatings on endless hordes of nasty goons. Tiger is a righteous hardass who just wants to hang out with his wife and eat blueberry cheesecake, and I enjoy checking in on his character every few years, especially when his friend Pathaan shows up to play for a little while.