Siddharth Anand’s latest collaboration with Hrithik Roshan in Fighter is an often dull and undercooked ripoff of Top Gun, even if its action scenes are a hoot to witness in IMAX 3D.
A year (to this day) after the release of Pathaan, director Siddharth Anand returns to the screen with his latest collaboration with actors Hrithik Roshan and Deepika Padukone in Fighter. Since the release of 2014’s Bang! Bang!, a remake of James Mangold’s Knight and Day, Anand has always been interested in turning his lead stars into variations of Tom Cruise through either the persona of Hrithik Roshan or Shah Rukh Khan. It’s probably why an ill-informed critic dubbed SRK the Tom Cruise of India, likely after viewing Pathaan, which was a direct ripoff of John Woo’s Mission: Impossible II, while Anand’s second collaboration with Roshan, War, had a plot plucked straight out of Woo’s Face/Off.
Watching Anand grow as a filmmaker, I’ve loved how he clearly loves big American blockbusters, specifically Cruise-starring and Woo-directed – larger-than-life stars, in their own right, who have pushed the medium of blockbusters forward through their star power & filmmaking techniques they consistently refine. It’s only logical, then, that his next effort would be a direct ripoff of Top Gun, with Roshan acting as the film’s Tom Cruise, running down the tarmac with his motorcycle and iconic sunglasses, with the impossibly beautiful female co-lead alongside him.
Perhaps this is not a close Top Gun ripoff, as some might have thought, but there are direct similarities. From the nicknames each character has to a major character dying halfway through the film for its patriotic message to be hammered home and everyone in the team united to stop the baddies, with its action-heavy sequences only saved for its climax, Anand checks all of the boxes Tony Scott and Joseph Kosinski established through Top Gun and its sequel, Top Gun: Maverick. Even a few shots by cinematographer Satchith Paulose directly recall some of Claudio Miranda’s most iconic frames in Top Gun: Maverick.
Where it diverges is through its depiction of its antagonist – a pretty major shift, as Top Gun’s villains are always unseen. We only see the planes but never know the country where they come from and who they are. They’re always nameless individuals who threaten the safety of America, with Maverick leading the fort in protecting the country with his team of fighter pilots. Fighter directly begins by introducing us to its villain, Azhar Akhtar (Rishabh Sawhney), a Jaish operative who plans to attack and take down India’s military directly, with the ultimate goal of separating Kashmir from India to merge it into Pakistan.
Akhtar sends a Mujahideen in a suicide bombing, resulting in the explosion of a convoy of buses transporting Indian soldiers. This leads the Indian Prime Minister to declare war on Pakistan by specifically targeting Jaish bases and taking down Akhtar before he performs the next step in his plan to dismantle India’s military. Part of India’s arsenal against the Jaish is the Air Dragons, with its fighter jet squadron led by Shamsheer “Patty” Pathania (Hrithik Roshan) and Minal “Minni” Rathore (Deepika Padukone) leading its helicopter pilot squadrons. The two lead the most dangerous missions in India’s Air Force and now have the task of bringing Akhtar and his operation down before more lives are lost.
It’s as clichéd as it comes and generally follows the Top Gun template without sticking too close to its story, especially regarding its depiction of its antagonistic forces. Not only is Akhtar the main figure in rallying up Mujahideens to perform terrorist attacks all over India, but enemy fighter pilots’ faces (and names) are also shown to give some form of emotional stakes to the protagonists. But in doing so, Anand fundamentally misunderstands the core of Top Gun’s story: it is never about the heroes getting emotionally invested in the story because of a bad guy with a personal vendetta against its country, but about the group of heroes who will risk everything to defend their motherland.
Sure, Anand focuses on the heroes. However, by constantly cutting away at the villain, he creates a narrative that doesn’t need to be there other than making its heroes mouthpieces for jingoism when brutal acts of terror are depicted in an insidiously exploitative and shamelessly manipulative light. Did we really need scenes of extreme torture after two hostages scream “Jai Hind” at the top of their lungs? Or how about the scene where Patty sees a bus attack victim on a stretcher at death’s door, remembering it was the one who flew the flag before he did the same?
Moments like these don’t feel powerful purely emotionally but are terribly forced, attempting to make the scenes emotional because of the characters’ love for the motherland. That’s why Anand and co-scribe Ramon Chibb, with dialogue writers Hussain and Abbas Dalal, fill the script with characters consistently uttering “Jai Hind” at every turn, hammering home how much they love the motherland and will do anything to protect it. In a recent interview, Anand described jingoism as “a matter of perspective. I call it nationalistic.” Well, jingoism is nationalistic, and the entirety of Fighter is steeped in ultra-patriotic imagery of Indian stars showcasing their love for the country and their willingness to fight its oppressors aggressively to guard their national identity and interests.
Credit where credit is due, Anand teaches his antagonist the meaning of “Jai Hind” in a powerful scene where Hrithik in God mode punches Akhtar through literal and figurative oblivion as he slowly tells him exactly what it means. It feels like the least problematic part of the film, full of sequences steeped deep in extreme nationalism, always choosing the most aggressive way to hammer its message home instead of balancing out its political messaging, where emotion drives the story as opposed to patriotism.
As such, none of the characters are particularly interesting. All of them love their country but don’t have any distinct characteristics that make them singular figures to root for, like in Top Gun. There is a version of Goose in Taj (Karan Singh Grover), just like a version of Maverick in Patty, but none are distinguishable. When you reduce each character to pure patriots, you don’t see the humanity in them, even if Anand fills most of its first two acts with glacially paced comedy where Hrithik uses his signature smolder to convince people to give him their Biryani plates or flourishes of “bonding” in the form of musical montages that see the characters throw snowball at each other or yell “Staycation!” as if this will give them humanity.
Sure, there are some impressive song and dance sequences concocted by duo Vishal-Shekhar (Sher Khul Gaye could be their answer to the bar scene in Maverick), but nothing will beat the unadulterated purity of watching Goose and Maverick sing Great Balls of Fire (the same for its sequel through Miles Teller’s Rooster). You don’t need a lot to make the characters feel like humans, as evidently shown in the Top Gun films, yet none of them in Fighter do save for Minni.
But that’s due to Deepika Padukone being one of India’s finest actors, showing us all her incredible emotional range, balancing from charming, sweet, and funny to incredibly heartfelt in the film’s only moment of humanity, when her parents, Abhijeet (Ashutosh Rana, forever brilliant) and Usha (Geeta Agrawal), accept her daughter again after Patty pays them a visit. Hrithik, however, doesn’t fare as well as Deepika: he’s more concerned about preserving his brand than being an actor (notice the HRX punching bag during one particular scene), resulting in yet another unevenly flat turn, far off from his career-best Koi…Mil Gaya and Dhoom 2. On the flip side, Minni’s reunion scene is the perfect reminder of the emotions Anand worked with in films like Bang! Bang! and Pathaan, proving there’s still some gas left in the tank for this seasoned Bollywood filmmaker who seems to be in sleep mode for most of this film.
There’s also some gas left in the tank in Anand’s technical direction of action sequences, which are simply exhilarating to witness on IMAX 3D. The use of the stereoscopic format is the best I’ve seen since Avatar: The Way of Water, with jets (and missiles) literally flying off the screen at record speed, putting the audience at the heart of the action. Top Gun had an IMAX 3D conversion, but it was never as good as what Anand and Paulose achieve in his aerial sequences, which defy all sense of logic and gravity, but are nonetheless inherently fun to watch.
Anand does leave most of the action in the film’s latter half, where the Armed Forces perform a HALO jump to infiltrate Akhtar’s base and rescue the hostages. The scene itself is the pinnacle of Anand’s action-making dexterity: blending tactile and effective one-on-one fights and gun battles with purely cinematic moments of mass entertainment designed for the audience to cheer at its hero as he beats the crap out of an unfortunately highly stereotypical and thinly-developed antagonist. I’ll admit I was slapping my seat like crazy when Patty would do insane backflips on his fighter jets and used his eject button at the very last minute to smartly take down an aerial antagonist, as improbable as it is. There’s something so pure in how paints those moments of true heroism that they almost make up for Fighter’s screenwriting inconsistencies.
But one must go through two hours of near-boredom with uninteresting characters to get to Fighter’s bravura sequence. Is the sequence highly memorable? Absolutely. Was it worth the time spent with the characters? Not really. At least the film wraps up with a neat musical scene that immediately recalls Jhoome Jo Pathaan, but it won’t be remembered as Anand’s finest achievement as a commercial filmmaker. Clearly, he loves Top Gun, and Cruise is his acting hero. But his love for the film – and Cruise – doesn’t translate as well as it did when he remade Knight and Day through Bang! Bang! and when he riffed Woo’s Mission: Impossible II last year. Perhaps his upcoming Tiger vs. Pathaan will see him amalgamate everything he loves about American cinema (and Tom Cruise) in one killer package, but as it stands, Anand’s tribute to Top Gun through Fighter is his weakest effort yet.
Fighter is out now globally in theaters.