As I already said in my no spoilers review, this was not a fun movie. And not a movie I liked. And, I think, not actually a good movie. But a movie with all the trappings to fool people into thinking it is good.
Whole film in two paragraphs:
We open in Iraq. A young American gets a secret message, and sends a last report of a new evil coming into the world, just as his door is broken in and he is kidnapped by a faux rebel organization, who kill him and send the video to the CIA. Meanwhile, a bunch of South Asian nurses are getting ready to leave their quarters to go to work at their hospital in Iraq. On the way, they see a bunch of scary guys with guns, and the leader, Sajjad Delfrooz, is shot right in front of them. The cars follow their bus to the hospital and take control, forcing the nurses to stay to take care of injured Sajjad and evacuating all the rest. One of the nurses manages to call the Indian embassy, and back in India RAW headquarters, Salman’s old boss Girish Karnad is talking to his assistant Anant Vidhaat Sharma, and declares that only Salman can save these nurses before the American’s call in an air strike on the hospital to kill everyone inside, good and bad.
Salman meanwhile is in Austria, sledding with his small son, who he saves from wolves. And then they go home to Katrina who is in a bad mood because Salman forgot their anniversary, not to worry his son helps him put together a wonderful surprise the next day. At the end of which they are surprised by Girish and Anant waiting for them. Salman at first doesn’t want to go back in action, but Katrina convinces him that it is who he is, he has to do it. He goes to Iraq and picks out his own team, they plan to infiltrate an oil field as workers, fake an injury there, then use that as an excuse to be taken to the hospital, and go from there. The plan works out, with some interference from Paresh Rawal, the long time old Iraqi hand labor broker. Along the way, Salman rescues a little boy who was being used as a suicide bomber, and Katrina shows up and surprises him, she is there with a Pakistani team because some of the nurses are Pakistani. The two teams merge together, the Pakistanis infiltrating the bad guy organization while Salman and his group stay as “patients” in the hospital. Meanwhile Kat gets her own big action sequence when she infiltrates the old city planning building with a group of women being used as sex workers, helping them to kill their oppressors in a spectacular manner. Finally, the American air strike is scheduled for mere hours away, there are multiple last minute roadblocks, including Katrina being taken and held hostage, in the end Salman kills Sajjad but Katrina is still chained up. He refuses to leave her, the nurses and the rest of the team get away (after one heroic death by an Indian team member), but Kat and Salman are presumed dead, trapped in the hospital when the strike came in. Until the final end tag a year later reveals that they have settled in Greece, with their son from the beginning and the suicide bomber little boy that they have now adopted, and Happy End Credits Song.
(I recommend arriving 2 hours and 15 minutes in, just in time to catch this song and skip the rest of the movie)
We were debating in the comments if the change of director would make that much of a difference. Which is a valid debate, after all it is a Yash Raj film and a Salman film, both of which have way more effect on the style of film it will be than any director could. But I think the change of director did make a difference. Not so much because of what I’ve seen from Kabir Khan (the director of the original) but because of what I’ve seen from Ali Abbas Zafar. Mere Brother Ki Dulhan was fun and clever and slight. But Sultan just felt, I don’t know, mushy (that’s a technical term). The performances were great, and there were occasional little moments that really shone. But as a whole, I never felt like there was a point to it, like there was one clear vision for what this film should be start to finish.
And that’s the problem with this movie too. The style factor can hide it, Ali Abbas has the background music driving it on, and the consistent color tone to every scene. And the fact that there are only two kinds of scenes, serious talking/planning/explaining scenes and action sequences. It feels like it is all the same thing. But that’s just the surface, underneath is a big ball of NOTHING. On the one hand, you have the constantly repeated message of Pakistan and India working together and having more in common than they have different. And you have the “love that will never die” between Katrina and Salman. And you have allllllllllllllllllllllll of these monologues about the causes of violence from Sajjad. And you have something about the nurses being helpless victims caught in the middle of violence they didn’t cause. And something about all the multinational factors involved, CIA versus RAW versus ISI and so on. But what is the center of the film? What is the point of it? What drove the filmmakers to make this picture? I DON’T KNOW!!!! Or rather, I do, and I think it was something different for each of them. I think someone really wanted the India-Pakistan friendship message, and someone else wanted the Strong Women message (Kat’s character really is great), and someone else wanted the Causes of Violence message, and no one person was able to overrule the others and it turned into a movie-by-committee. And that was the same problem with Sultan.
(That guy in the club in Delhi, and the guy flirting in the village house, they are loosely tied by a song, and Salman’s performance, but there just isn’t enough else that brings them together)
When I do a scene by scene of a good movie, a beautifully constructed movie, the more I dig in, the more I find the same messages repeated, the same themes. Not on purpose necessarily, but because everyone working on the film from the Star to the costume designer, was so clear on what they were doing that they just naturally followed along with it, added the perfect little character touch or just the right outfit. But when I dug into Sultan, the more I looked, the less there was. Things that appeared interesting at first glance turned out to have nothing there. I’m not going to bother with a scene by scene of this film, because I am sure I will find the same thing. There is just no there-there, as it were.
It’s a good idea from 8 years ago combined with a real life story that’s been in the news, and a lot of expensive Yash Raj gloss. And Salman being a very very good movie star, and Katrina being an excellent heroine. But nothing at the heart of it.
Not even Salman at the heart of it! That can work, a movie which is just made to make Salman look good. Ultimately that’s what Sultan was, even as it went up and down blind alleys, we could always come back to our reassuring central hero. But this movie, it felt like they were purposefully leaning away from that. Salman FINALLY gets a shirtless scene way at the end, but instead of being fun and triumphal, it’s yet another dimly lit brutal scary fight scene, in which he happens to be shirtless. At the end of the film, he comes out for his final big hero action moment which is…..shooting a really big gun. Where’s the leaping in from great heights, kicking people across the room, fun stuff like that? No, it’s just another really big gun. Because that is the level of imagination provided by these filmmakers.