One cannot fault a filmmaker for taking the template of “A History of Violence” by John Wagner. One cannot fault a filmmaker for also taking the template of the 1995 Tamil actioner Baasha, starring Rajnikanth, or the 1991 Bollywood feature of Mukul Anand “Hum”, starring Amitabh Bachchan. The template follows a man living an average life, completely severed from his chequered past, until elements of his past creep up on him, forcing him to become his violent self.

It’s not to say that John Wagner’s graphic novel is a seminal piece of literature or that it actually inspired Baasha, Hum, or the resulting template. But the ideas within it are universal. It is all about servicing the protagonist, showing what a different individual he is, and contrasting with his ultra-violent, heroic self of the past. The story’s climax stems from the reconciliation of the two halves in this equation, and the effectiveness of the reconciliation also depends on the degree of the difference between the two performances.

Credit then goes to Lokesh Kanagaraj and, more importantly, to Thalapathy Vijay, that the presentation of the Parthiban character is void of the typical hero intro shot, the typical Vijay mannerisms (pulling his collar towards his face before attacking, using his trusted bangle as a weapon, or his catchphrase “I am waiting”), but not removing the heroism of the character. Parthiban is a coffee shop owner in Shimla who used to work as an animal rescuer before coming to Shimla with his family due to his wife’s transfer. The opening sequence showing him as an animal rescue worker requires a conceit of wild hyenas attacking the village, and the CGI showcasing the hyenas is quite convincing, as is Vijay’s conviction in delivering the role of Parthiban.

Because Lokesh adapts the graphic novel “A History of Violence” and not the movie, he is in service to the overall skeleton of that plot. Lokesh’s proclivity for showcasing violence in all its regalia and brutality is in fine form here, as is even the texturing of some minor villainous characters just by their presence, like the psychotic killer played by Sandy Master, and thus it helps in breaking the film down into sizable chunks or arcs. True to the template, Kanagaraj and co-writer Rathna Kumar also focus a lot on Parthiban’s family and the breakdown of the family unit as it comes into scrutiny once the Das brothers Antony and Harold (Sanjay Dutt and “Action King” Arjun Sarja, respectively) “identify” Parthiban as Leo Das, Harold’s previously thought dead son. Kanagaraj’s utilisation of music as an original soundtrack rather than a medium of inserting songs to alleviate the tension results in music of a Western flavour, a rap song underscoring Parthiban’s mood as paranoia settles into the character. There are enough of his edits as well, like changing the perspective of an incident while maintaining the angle of the camera, which quickly works as a flashback to an event.

Kanagaraj’s movies’ USPs, however, are his action set pieces, and Leo seems to be one of his most ambitious in terms of scale and utilisation of special effects. There is an ample amount of drone camera usage in covering an entire area of the set-piece, be it the enclave where Parthiban fights with the hyena or the warehouse where Leo battles with his goons in the flashback sequences. There is an ample amount of CGI utilised in the final car chase sequence as well, which is dodgy in some aspects, resembling more of a video game cutscene, but in some angles works well in producing a kinetic effect, bolstered by Anirudh’s always reliable score.

However, even as Kanagaraj states that this is 100% his feature, it still becomes bloated. Because he is so much in service of the template he is adapting and homaging, there is an inevitable flashback sequence showcasing “Leo” Das. I will give credit to Kanagaraj for presenting Vijay in his full-blown commercial glory, with all the familiar mannerisms one would expect. The story is also structured with enough conviction, assisted by Vijay’s performance, that until the end, one is still not convinced whether the film is going to stick with the template or pull a double-blind. But the flashback sequence is constructed overall quite poorly, to the extent that it feels very unnecessary, and even the emotional hook of that sequence doesn’t work because it isn’t developed throughout the film.

Joseph Vijay as Parthiban is a revelation in this film. Almost acting against his nature, he brings vulnerability and conviction to his character, almost lending credence to a man out of his depth. His performance shows the difference between the two opposing tracks of the film, even if the film doesn’t. Kanagaraj might not be able to make his best features while collaborating with Vijay, but he does manage to extract a believable and compelling performance out of him. Sanjay Dutt as Antony Das is playing a role he can play in his sleep, but Arjun Sarja’s Harold Das is far more menacing than Antony simply by his presence. Gautham Vasudev Menon, the forest ranger who is an ally to Parthiban, lends a steady hand, while Trisha, Parthiban’s wife, plays a much more believable role because her chemistry with Vijay grounds their relationship.

This is going to be a spoiler if one chooses to take it as such. “Leo” is connected to the larger ‘Lokesh Cinematic Universe’, though, to make the connections unique and different, it comes off as forced to a certain degree. However, the overall central theme of that universe, ‘to make a drug-free society,’ is very much intact. Lokesh Kanagaraj’s efforts to make a commercial action film, slowly stripping away its sentimentality, aren’t very successful here, but as a full-blown action feature, it has enough meat in the bones to chew on and enough blood to lustily cheer on in the theatre. Streamlined scripting isn’t his forte, though, and that’s the fatal flaw.


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