Operation Valentine Review: Top Gun Redux

Operation Valentine follows the templates of similar air force narratives to deliver some rousing, harmless fun time, notes Arjun Menon.

Operation Valentine is the latest in a long line-up of action movies based on the air force.

No movie set against the backdrop of this milieu is free from comparisons to Tom Cruise’s Top Gun (1986) and its blockbuster sequel Top Gun Maverick (2022).

Shakti Pratap Singh Hada’s Operation Valentine does not help its cause by adhering to the cinematic beat sheet of the Top Gun films, in both its derived aesthetics and character writing.

An entitled, cocky fighter pilot, reeling from a tragedy, a dead friend whose demise charts the hero’s descent into guilt, ring a bell? The parallels are uncanny, but the film owns it right from the get-go with minimal distractions.

The film starts off in 2019, with Arjun Dev (Varun Tej), a celebrated fighter pilot of the Indian Air Force, recounting a traumatic accident from his past, the physical and mental scars of which still haunt him.

We also get introduced to his girlfriend, Wing Commander Ahaana Gill (Manushi Chhillar), and there are efficiently written callbacks to our hero’s glory days and long-standing relationships.

We get a sense of the stakes when he is assigned back to a dangerous mission, post a short hiatus from flying duties due to the failure of the confidential Mission Vajra, which ended with him losing his friend and wingman.

All the serious mission talk and guilt trip of the emotionally wounded protagonist is undercut with a montage that takes us through the couple’s relationship.

The writing is functional in the former half and the clumsy setup is further let down by sporadic time jumps in the narrative.

In an earlier scene, right after the hero is seen troubled by the visions of his friend’s death in combat, the quiet power of this moment is quickly diffused with a stuffed-in comedic interaction between his new flying partner and girlfriend, that leads to an unintentionally funny scene, where he is chased down by his lover for catching her take a bath, sneaking into her quarters in broad daylight.

This contrasting need to be at once coy, yet be taken seriously runs throughout the film’s runtime.

Operation Valentine is all about conviction.

Debutant film-maker Shakti Pratap Singh leans into the bland same-old energy of the film with an earnest stride.

There are no half-measures in the way he stages scenes and situations that border on self-aware parody and manifests the phrase ‘going through the motions’, in cinematic parlance.

Functional plot beats play out with assured confidence and we get the sense of the chest-thumping nationalistic fervour to blurt out in each frame, once the plot is established. However, the film downplays frenzied, chest-thumping to an extent, unlike Siddarth Anand’s Fighter, a recent film that treads similar grounds, with totally different affectations.

When the drama stops working, the visual effects department saves the film with some of the finest CGI shots in the country.

Though we get the occasional jilts in the quality of some passing effects shots, Operation Valentine pushes the way aerial action is shot and looks better than many more expensive effects-heavy Indian films from recent times.

We get the occasional cutaways to a terrorist outpost in Pakistan and flashes of the 2019 Pulwama attack, from which point the film takes off.

There is little nuance in the way the enemy is portrayed, but the film manages to sway away from cringe-inducing nationalism to an extent by downplaying the jingoism, though it is still quite evident in the way the Pakistani general and fighter pilots are presented.

Varun Tej is efficient as the central figure, around whom this entire patriotic exercise is built.

His charm is the scaffolding around which these testosterone-fueled actions work.

Varun gets to do the typically under-rated ‘eye-acting’ which we often see in such films, where we get the majority of the hero’s face concealed in the mask once, once engaged in aerial dog fights.

The actor manages to evoke a convincing hero figure, whose only redemption lies in the battlefield aka up in the sky.

The writing of the female lead inverts the usual gaze in this kind of broad screenwriting through Manushi Chhillar’s character, who gets some sense of agency in the way she is treated on screen.

The lover/senior dynamic subverts the usual placeholder heroine trope to some sense of importance, even though ultimately, she gets to act as second fiddle relegated into the sidelines in the hero’s journey, as often is the case.

The background score by Mickey J Meyer exhausts pretty much all the words in our nationalistic slogans and tweaks Vande Mataram to baffling effects in the climactic showdown.

Operation Valentine is an assortment of the tropes that never get tired of its stale rehashing.

It’s a self-serious action film that tries to cover the conventional construction of a Top Gun-like affair that gets much of the work done, though with painstaking casualties by way of its jingoism.

The film tip-toes its way around vague, chest thumping and silly writing in places but somehow manages to engage without beating you over the head with cliches, like other films aiming to deliver a similar experience.

Operation Valentine Review Rediff Rating: