It’s consistently one of cinema’s most popular genres (at least among a certain demographic), and has been since the 1930s, but the gangster picture also often risks retreading the same old ground over and over again. Look at “Black Mass,” which looks nice, has a stellar cast, is even based on a true story, and yet still ends up feeling like warmed up leftovers, in part because its material has been so well cannibalized by others, and in part because it has absolutely nothing new to say.
So the great Indian/Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta has an advantage with her own foray into the familiar genre. The filmmaker, best known for her ‘Elements’ trilogy (1996’s “Fire,” 1998’s “Earth,” and 2005’s Oscar-nominated “Water”) isn’t associated with movies involving bloody violence or quippy, profane dialogue, but her latest, “Beeba Boys” has both, telling an expansive crime tale about feuding Sikh gangsters in Vancouver. It certainly stands out among the crime movie crowd, but what it gains in cultural specificity, it loses by not being very good.
Based loosely on true events, we’re introduced to the titular Beeba (or “good”) Boys, a tough Vancouver gang made up almost entirely of second-generation Indo-Canadians. Their leader is Jeet Johar (Bollywood star Randeep Hooda), a loving single father who’s also not to be messed with, as we soon see as he blows away a rival in broad daylight. His crew — stylishly dressed in colorful suits, mostly interchangeable, bar wisecracking, Dastaar-wearing Manny (Wes Anderson regular Waris Ahluwalia) — are just as dangerous as he is, and they seem all but untouchable, even giving TV interviews to brag about their wealth and success, taunting rival Robbie Grewal (Gulshan Grover).
The police (personified here by “Inception” and “Avatar” actor Dileep Rao) seem to be helpless to do anything, but two new arrivals look to shake things up. One is Jeet’s new girlfriend, second-generation Polish immigrant Katya (Sarah Allen), who he meets while she’s serving on a jury trying him, sweeping her off her feet, while keeping her at a distance from his traditional family. The other is Nep (Ali Momen), a new arrival to the city who becomes the latest Beeba Boy, although unbeknownst to them, he’s actually in the employ of Grewal, and in love with the boss’ daughter Choti (Gia Sandhu).
Though she’s made purely English-language fare set in Canada before, the subject matter and genre of “Beeba Boys” is definitely something new for Mehta in her 25-year-career as a filmmaker, and from the earliest scene, as the Boys trade quips and insults on the way to off a victim, it’s clear that she’s more of a fan of Scorsese and Tarantino than you might have imagined from the filmmaker behind “Water.” As it turns out, she might be a little too much of a fan: with its ludicrously over-sweary dialogue, swagger that comes off more like posture, and macho bluster, the film plays more like one of those mid-90s “Pulp Fiction” knock-offs. It’s more “Boondock Saints” than “Casino,” in other words.
Mehta, to her credit, keeps things moving along at a breezy clip and makes Vancouver (for once, getting to play itself) look glorious. The film’s best moments undoubtedly come when she digs into the cultural specifics — that these guys can be devout Sikh family men one minute, and brutal drug-pushers and killers the next. On-screen statements bookend the film and remind us that Jeet and co. are based on real situations (if not real people), and it’s when investigating this interplay that the film becomes interesting and even authentic.
But authenticity is something that the film’s all too lacking in otherwise — the plotting is mostly contrived and implausible, and the scenes often verge into cartoonishness (Jeet comparing himself to “Transformers” character Megatron near the end doesn’t do him many favors). Maybe if the film had gone further in that direction and become a full over-the-top extravaganza it might have worked better, but instead it ends up stuck in the no man’s land between gritty and Bollywood.
Not many in the cast make an impression either. Momen and Sandhu, as the star-crossed lovers, perhaps come across best, sharing real charisma and genuine chemistry. Ahluwalia is engaging throughout, even if the film’s insistence on making him “the joker” drives off the road long before the end. And Hooda has demonstrable screen presence, even if the script doesn’t give him much to do besides glower. Beyond that, there are some bad performances in here, and a script that makes even the better actors look like they’re being put through the wringer.
From a distance, “Beeba Boys” looked like it had the potential to be a genuinely fresh take on the gangster movie, and it delivers on that promise in fits and starts. But ultimately, it seems as though Mehta has studied up on all the classics, but not quite absorbed why they work, and the whole thing ends up feeling like a missed opportunity. [C-]