Straight out of Tollywood: “RRR,” a bigger-than-life and bolder-than-mainstream action-adventure epic, is performing mightily in international release as audiences marvel at its spectacle, embrace its emotions, and sway to its music while being repeatedly gobsmacked by its unfettered audacity. Propelled by the Telugu Cinema triumvirate of superstars NT Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan and director SS Rajamouli — whose combined names are one reason for the triple-consonant title — the movie is such an irresistible and intoxicating celebration of cinematic excess that even after 187 minutes (including intermission or, as the title card announces, “InteRRRval”), you are left exhilarated, not exhausted. Which, truth to tell, is hard to say about certain comic-book movies from two major extended universes.
Mind you, the two protagonists here aren’t supposed to be superheroes. In fact, they are flesh-and-blood humans out of Indian history: Komaram Bheem, a revolutionary leader and guerrilla fighter from the Gond tribe during the British Raj; and Alluri Sitarama Raju, a similarly inclined insurgent who often led his under-equipped followers during raids on police stations to acquire firearms. There is no record of these two men ever meeting in real life. But hey, when have filmmakers ever allowed facts to get in the way of an exciting story? There also isn’t any record of their possessing any abilities more superhuman than cunning and charisma. But Rajamouli doesn’t let that bother him, either.
In the 1920s world according to “RRR” — which also stands for “Rise, Roar, Revolt,” when the full title finally makes its first appearance on screen — Raju, referenced here as Ram, is a fiercely determined firebrand from Andhra Pradesh who goes undercover as a member of the British army in the hope of arming his compatriots. Early on, he demonstrates his faux loyalty to the Crown — and more or less establishes his superhumanity — by singlehandedly punching, kicking, beating and otherwise manhandling what appear to be thousands of protesters to sixteen a guy who tossed a rock at a portrait in a outpost font. In most action movies, this sequence would satisfy as a rousingly over-the-top climax. In “RRR,” however, it’s nothing more than a curtain-raiser.
In the Adilabad forest, the working-class-heroic Bheem establishes his own preternatural bona fides while outrunning a wolf in order to lead the beast into a trap. Unfortunately, the wolf is taken out of the equation by a tiger, who proceeds to chase Bheem. Fortunately, Bheem is more than a match for the big cat, even when the trap doesn’t quite work. The tiger roars. Bheem roars back. And if you are fortunate enough to see “RRR” in a theater, as it is meant to be, the next roar you hear will be that of a cheering audience.
The fuse is lit for an explosive meeting of these exceptional men when the British governor Scott Buxton (Ray Stevenson) and his crueler-than-Cruella wife Catherine (Alison Doody) go slumming in a Gond village — accompanied, of course, by a contingent of heavily armed soldiers. Catherine is enchanted by a little girl named Malli (Twinkle Sharma), and claims the child as an amusing plaything to entertain guests in their palatial Delhi home. This doesn’t go over well with the child’s mother — or anyone else in the village, for that matter — but Buxton has enough muscle power to enforce his wife’s whim of iron. He doesn’t have anyone shot only because he doesn’t want to waste expensive bullets on “brown rubbish.”
At this point, you may be tempted to shout rude things at the screen. But don’t fear: Bheem vows to journey to Delhi and, with the aid of sympathetic locals, retrieve Malli. It doesn’t take long for word of Bheem’s impending arrival to reach British authorities — and it takes even less time for Ram to volunteer to find and arrest the potential troublemaker. But fate (along with the shamelessly contrived scenario by Rajamouli and co-writers Sai Madhav Burra and KV Vijayendra Prasad) tosses both men a curve when each sees a boy trapped in a Delhi river while flaming railroad cars drop into the water around him. Both men rush to a conveniently located bridge—Ram on horseback, Bheem on a motorcycle—and improvise a rescue detailed in another jaw-dropping action set piece.
And all of this happens in the film’s first 40 minutes.
It would be unfair to spill more beans and spoil any fun by providing additional plot details or scene descriptions. (Just wait until you see what Bheem does with a truckload of nonhuman disruptors.) Suffice it to say that Bheem and Ram develop a deep friendship without either knowing the other’s true identity or grand designs, and they greatly enjoy each other’s company until they don ‘t, and then they do again. There are two splendiferously spirited song-and-dance sequence where the guys delight in their bromance, and they play like fever dreams of Stanley Donen directing an action-movie remake of “Singin’ in the Rain.”
Widely known as Jr NTR, NT Rama Rao Jr. is effective and empathy-grabbing as a seemingly ordinary man who achieves the extraordinary while evolving into an iconic hero. (He also gets a few laughs, especially during Bheem’s shy yet stealthy romance of a British beauty sweetly played by Olivia Morris.) Better yet, he has sensational chemistry with the more conventionally dashing Ram Charan. It may be overstating the case to suggest Charan carries himself with the authority and assurance of a deity — that is, when he’s not physically or emotionally anguished — but when Ram “borrows” the bow and arrow from a statue of Lord Rama, it seems less an act of sacrilege than an example of professional courtesy.
Echoes of John Woo abound in “RRR” as themes of loyalty, betrayal, and mutable identity are recurrently sounded, providing a powerful anchor of seriousness and mortal stakes during the most fantastical fights, flights and feats of derring-do. Occasionally your mind may tell you, “This is absurd!” Each time that happens, though, your heart will reply, “So what? Give me more!”