A Trinity College scientist is suspected of selling missile technology secrets to Pakistan. In response, the Indian government sends a secret agent – codenamed Tiger (Salman Khan) – to find out about the professor's activities. But Tiger falls in love with the professor's caretaker, Zoya (Katrina Kaif), who is studying at a fictional dance academy located at TCD...
Barely deviating from traditional Indian super-spy films which have long traded in familiar tropes, Kabir Khan’s preposterously cartoonish Ek Tha Tiger delivers solid thrills with minimum intellectual investment.
the minor variations simply aren’t enough to give this highly-anticipated work a flavour or voice of its own
The Hindi-language romantic-thriller vehicle for Salman Khan stringently adheres to the same formula that has seen the brooding, pouty star conquer Bollywood for the last few years. But the minor variations employed to differentiate Ek Tha Tiger from past efforts like Bodyguard (2011) and Dabangg (2010) simply aren’t enough to give this highly-anticipated work a flavour or voice of its own.
The film kicks off in Northern Iraq, where Khan’s RAW agent 'Tiger’ is taking out a double-agent. The first shot of the character is in silhouette, his hulking, shadowy form towering over the metropolis below; clearly, this will be a film that trades in superhero-sized mythology. Cue Tiger’s leap from a three-storey window and onto the roof of a passing vehicle where he nails a firm, two-footed landing and some parkour-inspired rooftop-to-rooftop leaping (thanks to a remarkably thinner stunt-double).
On his return home, we learn that Tiger is a neighbourhood hero, the villagers whispering and giggling every time he appears to collect his morning milk (suggesting there is nothing secret about his secret agent life). He’s soon given his next assignment by his RAW boss and mentor (Girish Karnad): observe and infiltrate the life of a Dublin-based professor (Roshan Seth, wasted in a bit part) who may be developing weapons technology with Pakistan.
Whilst on the Emerald Isle, Tiger, undercover as a nerdy writer, manages to demolish a metro-link tram and attend an utterly hilarious musical theatre rendition of Pinocchio by a troupe of river dancers. He then becomes distracted by Zoya (Katrina Kaif), a winsome dance teacher with secrets all her own, and love blossoms over the remainder of the pre-interval first-half.
Action fans will be happier with the second act, which sees Zoya and Tiger bond over some well-staged chase and fight scenes in Istanbul and Havana. The energy of the combat and the colourful settings are crucial as there’s not enough meat on the bones of the plot to sustain its 142 minute running time. A romantic montage set against Cuba’s azure waters is pretty in a shampoo commercial kind-of-way but unnecessary. The CGI-enhanced big-bang finale is daft but fun.
Kabir Khan, working from a script he co-wrote with Neelesh Mishra, occasionally indulges in the kind of character drama audiences don’t generally associate with Salman Khan’s macho epics; some nice brotherly scenes between Tiger and his co-agent Gopi (a fine Ranvir Shorey) are well-played. He also allows for some political commentary in the depiction of a romance between government agents from India and Pakistan, though his overstating of those themes in the wrap-up is clumsy.
The leads lack the kind of chemistry that would have fully engaged audiences, and the director’s reliance upon Khan’s straight-to-camera smouldering and Kaif’s doe-eyed longing becomes tiresome. (Their obvious age difference is also distracting.) Comparisons to Ian Fleming’s super-spy are inevitable (at one point, Khan yells to the camera 'I am James Bond!"), but 007 would never have indulged in such a chaste romance (ruffled sheets are the only hint of shared passion) nor sided so comfortably with his agency bosses.
Translated as There Once Was a Tiger, the film’s record-breaking domestic box-office suggests that there will inevitably be a sequel. But Khan’s credible action persona is playing out and if Ek Tha Tiger represents a step up in the star’s usual standard, any follow up will need to increase the ante. His rabid fanbase may be screaming for it, but one wonders if the aging star will be as hungry or convincing the second time round.