It probably was only a matter of time before the directing duo of Abbas-Mustan got around to remaking The Italian Job. Both the original and its Hollywood remake revolve around the heist of a massive cache of gold bars. The 1969 version oozed Sixties charm and British kitsch, from Michael Caine’s waggish Charlie Croker, to his fellow heist experts, including a demolitions expert and the Benny Hill-ish computer expert, Professor Peach (not surprisingly, played by Benny Hill). The 2003 version updated but stayed true to the original, and technological improvements meant that the planning and enacting of the heist became even more intriguing to watch.
And I’ll be honest – part of what made me actually enjoy Players as much as I did was the fact that the duo decided not only to make an official remake, but that they chose to try to integrate elements from both previous versions. Master Planner Charlie is a given, but we also have the ultra-patriotic British criminal Mr. Bridger (Noel Coward) from the 1969 version – who becomes the Indian patriot Mr. Braganza (Vinod Khanna) who decides to back the plan because he wants to use his share to build the biggest orphanage in India. The 2003 version gives us the idea of Bridger’s daughter (Charlize Theron), the master safe cracker who, unlike her father, uses her skills for good until she joins Charlie’s team in order to avenge the death of her father. In Players, we have Naina Braganza (Sonam Kapoor, mostly out of her depth here, sadly), a specialist in “ethical hacking”, who, well, joins Charlie’s team in order to avenge her father’s death.
So for me, it was kind of an interesting exercise to see what had been taken from which version, and how Abbas-Mustan managed to integrate the two (well at times, less well at others), and then add their own particular touches to make the film their own.
So, in Players, we have Charlie (Mascarenhas this time, played by Abhishek Bachchan) the master planner. We have a geeky computer hacker, Spider (Neil Nitin Mukesh); there’s Riya (Bipasha Basu), equally at home playing the seductress as she is as souping up a train to make it run faster. There’s Bilal Bashir (Sikhander Kher) the demolitions expert (who, like his counterpart in the 2003 version, is deaf in one ear. Though in bit of sloppy continuity, when we’re introduced to him he’s wearing a hearing aid in one ear -- the same ear he’ll be wearing a headset (for talking to the team) in later on in the film). There’s the expert in make-up and disguise, Sunny (Omi Vaidya), and a mysterious illusionist, Ronnie (Bobby Deol).
The problem, though? I think for a film entitled Players, there’s not an awful lot of play going on. Oh, sure, there are car chases and stunts and explosions (though, sadly, no one utters Michael Caine’s classic line, “You were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off!” – no one but me, because I couldn’t resist leaning over and whispering it to Mr. Totally Filmi a couple of times.
But most of the actors wander through the film with a serious expression pasted on their faces – oh, I know, stealing Bulgarian gold from the Russians is a serious business, but surely one could have some fun with it in the process? Abhishek’s Charlie is mostly a somber man, and the only time we see a spark of amusement come through is when, in order to check out a gold merchant, he plays the assistant to a man who wants to buy some gold (the amusingly named Mr. Zaheri Bazaar, which made me guffaw in theatre). Bobby Deol as master illusionist Ronnie is given very little to do except look mysterious – probably to reflect both his craft and the secret he hides. Sikhander Kher’s Bilal is there to plant a few explosives and not much more, except perhaps to argue a wee bit with Omi Vaidya’s Sunny. I’ll be honest – I found Sunny an incredibly annoying character, and though Vaidya should be commended for his continuing efforts to work in Hindi, his lack of fluency seriously impacts his ability to deliver lines with appropriate comic timing. Sunny was meant to be comic relief; thank goodness there was Johny Lever and his Smart with gold-rimmed wheels to actually make me laugh.
In fact, the only two people who seem to be having much fun at all are Bipasha Basu’s Riya and Neil Nitin Mukesh’s Spider. In fact, I think Basu is given the best line in all the film. Riya is sent to seduce a Russian officer, and he begins rambling on drunkenly about how he loves India, all Russians love India – in fact, Russians love Raj Kapoor. He then proceeds to sing “Mera Joota Hai Japani”, stripping off each bit of named clothing as he sings (hat, shoes, pants) – at which point Riya says, “Thank god there were no underwear in that song!”
And Neil Nitin Mukesh? Well, he rips through the film like a gleeful teenager who’s just stolen the keys to his father’s Ferrari. Perhaps he could be faulted for hamming it up, and maybe like that teenager, not quite have the skills to keep from crashing a car that’s maybe a bit too much to handle. But it was such a relief to see him taking the role and running with it, to bring a touch of gleeful menace to it all, to put the play back in Players.
All that said – Players was not the disaster I’d expected it to be (with the exception of the music. I’m sticking to my rule of not listening to soundtracks before I’ve seen the film, so the song “Buddhi Do Bhagwan” left me a little gobsmacked. “Charlie’s Angels”? Really?), and until the last half hour, was actually reasonably entertaining. Unlike the 2003 version, where the last half hour of the film just captivated my attention, the overlong and draggy last part of Players finally had me looking at my watch. For me there were a few too many eye-roll moments, there were one or two too many twists introduced, a few too many plot holes, too many surprises spoiled because they were telegraphed in advance, and one missed opportunity.
In the original film, the Minis were painted patriotic red, white and blue, the colours of the Union Jack. I so wished Abbas-Mustan had painted their Minis saffron, white and green
Still the best thing about all three versions...