Rajni's 1980 blockbuster Billa seemed like a prime candidate for an update. The combination of its strong story and racy screenplay, coupled with today's production values, seemed ideal for a present-day remake that had both style and substance. But this remake doesn't quite get it right. Its production values are top-notch but they can't inject enough energy to make up for the watered-down story and weak narrative.
Billa(Ajith) is a criminal who does it all - murder, drug trafficking, arms smuggling. He kills his enemies without batting an eyelid and doesn't think twice about giving his friends the same treatment when they cross him. Jaishankar(Prabhu) is the DCP hot on his heels but always a step behind and he gets some help in the form of Interpol officer Gokulnath(Rahman). But Billa doesn't have enemies just on the outside. Sasha(Nayanthara) joins his gang in order to kill him and avenge her brother's death. Jaishankar, with some help, finally manages to apprehend Billa, who dies in the DCP's car. Keeping his death a secret, Jaishankar gets Velu(Ajith), a pickpocket, to take Billa's place. Velu's task is to round up the rest of Billa's gang and unmask Jagdish, the top gun to whom Billa reports.
Having been exposed to more complex stories and screenplays, viewer sensibilities have changed and they are ready to think and absorb more. So when a director selects a well-known movie to remake, we hope that he retains the spirit of the original but still makes changes that surprise and challenge viewers familiar with it. So it is surprising that Vishnu Vardhan elects to dilute Billa's story to make it less meaty. He eliminates key characters, makes key sequences(like the one where Nayantara rescues Billa) rather uncomplicated and introduces plot points that actually reduce the suspense level(like the question of when Billa will be exposed in the My Name is Billa... number) in some key scenes. So the movie feels dumbed down and lacks pace and energy. That is always damaging but here, when one remembers an original that raced along with surprising twists and turns, it is rather fatal.
The movie certainly looks good. The cinematography, the desaturated colors, the costumes, the slo-mo shots and the pulsating background score create a movie that is sleek and stylish. It sometimes feels like Ajith is a model walking the ramp rather than a criminal on his way to a kill but the 'cool factor' is something missing in Tamil films and that is present in abundance here. Its this look that makes the movie work whenever Billa is in focus. Once focus moves from Billa to Velu, which is what happens when Velu goes on the run, opportunities to be stylish are not that many and this contributes to the lack of energy in the second half.
But actors too have an important part to play in a movie's look. Ajith looks dashing and Nayanthara looks great but Prabhu almost single-handedly brings down Billa's coolness. Everything about the actor - his portly look, his wig, his emoting, his dialog delivery - screams old-style and just doesn't gel with the modern look that Vishnu Vardhan is going for. And it doesn't help that he is given some absolute clunkers to mouth. Namitha too doesn't help matters. While the actress doesn't have as important a role as Prabhu, her figure-hugging dresses, mini-skirts and her dance steps make her look vulgar rather than sexy. When she shares the screen with Nayanthara, they look like the female version of Laurel and Hardy!
Vishnu Vardhan brings in a low-key touch that is a pleasant and welcome change from the loudness usually associated with Tamil cinema. Characters speak very little(though the movie could have used a few more one-liners) and sentiments are kept to a minimum. The lack of loudness is actually more evident in the action sequences. The hand-to-hand fight is rugged and feels real. The superb stunt on the aerobridge doesn't go over the top. And when Ajith's car pushes one of his pursuers' cars away during a very well picturized car chase, it just slides to the roadside and stops instead of running over a slope, flying into the air and exploding in a great ball of fire as its parts fall down!
While upgrading technology to keep up with the times is necessary, the screenplay has to be upgraded too to make sure that it works with the changes. The red diary in the original is now a pen drive but the events around it are still old-fashioned.When Ajith refuses to hand it over when asked or another character is thrilled after checking its veracity, its impossible to not wonder why someone couldn't have just copied its contents to another computer before giving it away. This - along with the fact that the climax is ripped-off from the Al Pacino-Colin Farrell starrer The Recruit - makes the entire last section of the movie feel dumb and dull.
Ajith is suitably endearing as Velu. He gets a lot of laughs during the training session with Prabhu and uses his body language and dialog delivery to distinguish convincingly between the two roles. His dance steps, particularly for Seval Kodi..., which is a very fast song, are noticeably slow and his back problems probably have something to do with that. Nayanthara looks gorgeous though that is pretty much all she has to do. The few sequences that actually gave the heroine something to do in the original have been cut out completely or watered down considerably here and so all she has to do is flaunt her now-flat abs and stroll around in bikinis and skirts.Rahman is solid while Santhanam mercifully has only a few scenes.
Vishnu Vardhan and Ajith may have intended this movie to be a homage to the original Billa. But it just ends up reminding us how good the original was in the first place.