‘Kill’ Review: Indian Bandits Pick the Wrong Train to Rob in One of the Best Pure Action Movies Since ‘The Raid’

Nikhil Nagesh Bhat’s “Killwants you to think it’s cheesy. It wants you to forget about its pointedly generic — albeit memorably blunt — directive of a title. It wants you to chuckle when the square-jawed hero (Lakshya) is introduced with a crunchy guitar lick. It wants you to roll your eyes when NSG commando Amrit Rathod trades meathead barbs with his mustached best friend, Viresh (Abhishek Chauhan), and it wants you to brace for a typically broad action romance when the boys crash an engagement party at a Radisson hotel in Jharkhand, where Amrit’s big-eyed beloved (Tanya Maniktala) is being forced into an arranged marriage by her father.

Following the festivities, Tulika and her business empire of a family board an overnight train to New Delhi to prepare for the wedding. Meanwhile, Amrit and Viresh sneak aboard with every intention of derailing that plan. Amrit may not be rich, but maybe there’s another way he can sufficiently impress Tulika’s father? Enter: 40 machete-wielding bandits (a family business of a different sort, it turns out), who begin stealing from the passengers, and even take Tulika’s younger sister as a hostage for good measure. By the time Amrit and Viresh start to make the dacoits severely regret picking this particular day to rob the Rajdhani Express, it seems like the movie around them has precious few surprises in store.

More from IndieWire

The joke’s on us, and the punchline — delivered when Bhat triumphantly drops the blood-spattered title card 45 minutes into the action — hits with the force of a steaming locomotive. You see, the bandits may have thought they were hijacking the kind of movie that some might escape with their limbs intact, but one of them, a handsomely sociopathic failson named Fani (Raghav Juyal), just has to go and take things a little bit too far. Big mistake. Huge. I mean, the severely outnumbered Amrit and Viresh weren’t even going to fight back at first! But our boys can’t help but snap after Fani starts killing people.

And just like that, this lightly bruising and seemingly PG-13 love story erupts into an unabashedly R-rated massacre that merits comparison to “The Raid.” Jugulars pop open like water balloons. Heads are mashed into toilet seats until their faces go flat. One guy is even beaten to death with a field hockey stick. The violence isn’t quite as relentless as it would be in a Gareth Evans movie, nor the gore so ludicrously over the top. That’s only because this hyper-contained bloodbath only becomes more grounded and human-scaled as it rolls along, its desperate pathos deepening at the same rate as its body count grows higher.

“Kill” makes very, very good on its goofy title by the time all is said and done, but perhaps the most surprising thing about Bhat’s action extravaganza is that it inverts expectations without ever getting off-track. An instant classic of its genre already set for an English-language remake from the companies behind “John Wick,” this pulp melee of a movie — so winking and cartoonish when it first leaves the station — is beaten into something painfully tender by its final destination.

That raw emotionality is a lot easier to see coming once it becomes apparent that Bhat’s screenplay has more in common with “Snowpiercer” than the “‘Die Hard’ on a train” likes of, say, “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” (and what higher praise could a critic possibly offer a script than to say that it didn’t evoke “Under Siege 2: Dark Territory” as much as they thought it might?). “Kill” wears its socioeconomic tensions lightly, but they trickle into every crevice of its story, even if the exquisitely replicated passenger train on which that story takes place doesn’t appear to be divided by class. Indeed, the greatest flaw of the film’s excellent fight design is that the specific location where each brawl takes place — which car are the characters in? — is never as clear as the choreography of their movements.

What is clear is that Amrit is deemed unworthy of Tulika’s love because of his station, and that the bumbling family of bandits who storm the Rajdhani Express belong to an even lower caste. Fani, who assumes control of the bad guys through sheer force of will, works at a gas station in the middle of nowhere, where his unleaded frustrations are fueled by his unrealized ambitions. Young, strapping, and somewhat unrealistically skilled with a knife, Fani is one of the few dacoits destined to be the villain in an action movie (down to his evil smirk and casual flair for misogyny). The rest of his brigade, many or all of whom are members of Fani’s extended family, are basically glorified bumpkins who’ve only become thieves to steal a decent life back for themselves. Their country-made guns are so unreliable that hostages become a more effective weapon. Most of the men are out of shape. Some are in their 50s and 60s. All of them, save Fani, see this as a shameful night job — more a chance to improve their circumstances than to avenge them. That is, until people start dying, and the battle with Amrit becomes extremely personal on both sides.

In “Kill,” it’s politically telling that the crisis aboard the Rajdhani Express never fully registers with the government, and it’s just as revealing that Tulika’s business tycoon of a father is framed as the only reason why it would. Bhat lacks the budget for the kind of third-act shenanigans that movies like this often rely upon to raise the stakes (even at the expense of lowering the suspense), but that doesn’t feel like the only reason why the police don’t get involved. Hell, the armed guards riding in the front of the train don’t even learn about the carnage taking place a few cars behind them until it’s almost too late to help out. The troubles of the lower classes are so perfectly self-contained that everything seems well and good during the wide shots we’re afforded of the train gliding through the landscape; any of the help that Amrit and Viresh might hope to find must come from their fellow passengers.

But don’t worry, our boys are plenty capable on their own. Choreographed by action director Oh Se-young, whose previous train-ing includes his stuntwork on “Snowpiercer,” the fights make for a vicious and consistently satisfying display of close-quarters combat. The individual slashes and stabs are a bit slower than you might find in the “John Wicks” of the world, but that proves more a feature than a bug in a film whose narrow sets force characters to be precise with their movements, lest they accidentally slaughter a cousin or an innocent passenger.

Such confines allow Amrit’s skills to be even deadlier than they might in the open, and newcomer Lakshya — a TV dreamboat making his feature film debut — swings a machete far more convincingly than he spits out dialogue like “our love is much more powerful than her dad.” (The worst groaners are reserved for Fani, who at least gets to couch “the commander’s love has fallen on us like a bomb” in the twinkly-eyed delirium of a villain gone mad). “Kill” finds enough different ways to get stabbed and/or bludgeoned to death that the fighting never feels repetitive, with Bhat intercutting close-up handheld footage with shots from a ceiling-mounted dolly to strike a clear and sustainable balance between carnage and clarity.

Scored to the plucky tension of Ketan Sodha’s pulse-quickening score, that dynamic reflects how the film views its sprawling ensemble cast, whose every member we recognize and react to accordingly, even if character details are kept to a bare minimum. Amrit’s trajectory is the only one that really matters, and Bhat makes the most of his lead actor’s good looks, as Lakshya is perfect for the role of a fresh-faced matinee idol with features rendered almost unrecognizable beneath all the blood his character spills on the tracks — a corruption of the soul that “Kill” treats with just the right amount of seriousness for a movie where someone says “oh, they’ll get off the train all right, but only for their funerals.”

Few action films have ever had as much fun subverting the expectations they set for their audience, but “Kill” is more than a cheap bait-and-switch. On the contrary, the story’s bruising power stems from the fact that, for people like Amrit and Fani, even the simplest or most innocent dreams have been priced at a cost they can hardly dare to fathom, let alone be able to afford.

Grade: B+

Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions will release “Kill” in theaters on Thursday, July 4.

Best of IndieWire

Sign up for Indiewire's Newsletter. For the latest news, follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.