The very first scene in Romeo Akbar Walter shows you a bleeding John Abraham being subjected to third-degree in an ISI holding cell in Karachi, and you expect to be thrust into action from the word go. Instead, what you get is a slow-burning spy thriller that takes its own sweet time, and to reach a rather incredulous conclusion after it all. Director Robbie Grewal claims to have picked up the idea for his movie during a conversation in 2012 with his father Major M S Grewal who also served in military intelligence himself. It took seven years for the director to research and bring his vision to the big screen. And it feels like the movie runs for that long, too.
Like we said, Romeo Akbar Walter starts off showcasing plenty of seriousness and brutality - in a particularly haunting scene featuring an act of torture prefaces the title card. The film features the son of Subhedar Major Gulrez Ali, Rehmatullah "Romeo" Ali (John Abraham), who is approached by India's foreign intelligence agency, Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Reluctantly leaving his girlfriend Parul (Mouni Roy) and aging mother behind, a sombre Romeo becomes Akbar Malik, and gets posted in Kotli in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir as the manager of a hotel frequented by the influential.
Akbar manages to get into the service of an arms dealer who is close to the Pakistani defence, and the scene shifts to Karachi. For all intents and purposes Romeo ceases to exist in the records, and Akbar is sent into the the clichéd world of espionage with its hidden transmitters and surveillance rooms. An unnecessary song routine, a doomed romance, a tense chase, a bombing, supposed double-crossings and a whole bunch of drama later, Akbar is now Walter Khan, in a "twist" that doesn't really seem to matter (and that most will see coming).
As we mentioned, Romeo Akbar Walter shows a lot of promise in its opening moments - and the script then promptly proceeds to eviscerate the promise. Given that the movie is set in the backdrop of the Bangladesh Liberation War, and India's large role in its resolution (with the Indo-Pak war of 1971 looming large), you expect a thriller filled with tense, pacy intrigue. Instead, you get a movie with an incredibly slow pace (a run-time of almost two and a half hours) and one that expects a lot of leeway from you. The film requires a healthy suspension of disbelief especially in the second half, with Abraham's third avatar, the ridiculously named Walter Khan, being particularly off-putting.
Grewal does get a few things right. Romeo Akbar Walter is one of the few films where the Pakistani forces don't appear like blood-thirsty but inept, bumbling idiots out for Indian blood. Instead, the movie portrays Colonel Khan (Sikander Kher) as a character who does his job well, with chasing Akbar being only another part of his work. The script holds a no-nonsense approach that is devoid of clutter (though even that sometimes gives the impression of a satirical mockumentary).
The movie also gets interactions right - the Hindi song that pokes fun of the Pakistani officer searching Romeo's home, and the method of using a polygraph test against itself are good examples of that. The film also succeeds initially at its attempts to be a slow-burning, tense thriller that keeps you glued to your seat.
John Abraham is aided by having to play a subdued character, devoid (thankfully) of any of the bravado that a lot of Indian action movies use freely. His inscrutable face and stoic demeanour however still feel a bit off. Mouni Roy is wasted - the script basically reduces her to the role of "love interest" despite plenty of potential, due to her character's background. Jackie Shroff as Romeo's RAW handler seems too smug for a character that should be under such pressure. Sikander Kher tries his utmost as a Pakistani officer, getting the mannerisms and accent just right, but ends up being let down by the script, as with most other things in Romeo Akbar Walter.
A tense thriller doesn't really need full length songs, which makes the fairly long track a bit jarring. And "Maa", the song that is used to depict the relationship between a mother and son, seems almost farcical given how insincere that whole relationship appears.
Grewal spends much of the first hour building up a realistic thriller (with some cinematic license, which we'll grant it) and completely shatters it by following up with a flight of fantasy. Romeo Akbar Walter swings back and forth, and you have a hard time taking it seriously. For the lack of a better word, it feels pointless. A pity, considering what it could have been.