I can think of two action films from the past decade that involved a stunt in which an actor throws an entire motorcycle at someone. The first is the 2015 Marvel sequel Avengers: Age of Ultron. Captain America (played by Chris Evans), battling bad guys in a snowy forest, does a flip with his bike and flings it at an armored tank. But the moment is brushed off; Cap mutters an unrelated joke and his wild accomplishment is immediately undercut, an eye-rolling punctuation to a busy but washed-out combat set piece.
The other movie to feature two-wheelers as handheld weapons is the Indian epic RRR, a box-office phenomenon that’s become one of the highest grossers in the country’s history. In the final act, the rebel hero Komaram Bheem (N. T. Rama Rao Jr.), confronted with a motorcycle vrooming toward him, stops it in its tracks with a kick, grabs it by the front wheel, and uses it to demolish various opponents, swinging it around like a very unwieldy sword. The feat is ridiculous, but also utterly glorious, rendered in ultra-slow motion set to booming, jubilant music.
RRR, written and directed by S. S. Rajamouli, is more than three hours long, and its run time is bursting with moments like this, aggressive spectacles that are given enough room and emphasis to let the audience revel in them. Bheem is introduced with a training montage in the forest that sees him battle a tiger and a wolf. Later on, in one of his most preposterous attacks on nefarious colonial Brits, he mounts a truck filled with animals and crashes it into a gated fortress, then leaps out, flanked by an assortment of wild creatures, while carrying flaming torches in each hand. The visual is heroic nonsense, sure, but it’s also stirringly maximalist poetry, the kind of sincere triumphalism that feels absent from peer Hollywood blockbusters.
RRR (in English, the title stands for “Rise, Roar, Revolt”) is possibly the most expensive Indian film ever made, with a budget equivalent to $72 million. It is a product of the Telugu-language industry based in Hyderabad, which rivals the Mumbai-based Bollywood and has begun to threaten that sector’s position in terms of financial success. Rajamouli’s last two movies before this one are among the country’s biggest hits. So upon its March release, RRR’s smash reception in India was to be expected. But its impressive performance in America, where it was initially screened in about 1,000 theaters, was surprising, given the comparative lack of press and advertising.
Since its strong opening weekend, RRR has become a word-of-mouth event in the U.S. Some theaters have organized packed special screenings as one-night events, and others have gone all in on daily showtimes for the foreseeable future, even though the film is now available to stream on Netflix. RRR has broken through for American audiences for likely a few reasons—many people desire fun, communal viewing experiences after years of COVID lockdowns, and cinema chains are casting wider nets as traditional Hollywood studios have had far fewer theatrical releases than usual in recent years. But I think the main explanation is that RRR offers the kind of action extravagance that even the biggest-budgeted superhero movies (such as Spider-Man: No Way Home or Black Widow) seem curiously afraid to embrace.
RRR is decidedly less cautious—even a single fired bullet will sometimes get its own slow-motion star treatment, as it blasts gracefully through the air toward a particular evildoer. No self-aware jokes are let loose to undermine the melodrama, and while most of RRR’s many action scenes are overwhelming in scale, they also all manage to feel thematically different. The tale follows two freedom fighters, both loosely based on real-life figures from early-20th-century Indian history (though the script is entirely fictitious): Bheem, a defender of the Gond tribes looking to rescue a local girl kidnapped by the British, and Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan), who, in the film, is a military officer for the empire and secretly hopes to use his position to foment rebellion.
Though they share a hatred for the British, Bheem’s and Raju’s missions are often at cross-purposes, and the script delights in bringing the pair together as friends against all odds. After extended prologue scenes that separately depict their martial prowess, the movie finally unites them about 45 minutes in, when they both chance upon a train accident on a bridge that endangers a child. Bheem and Raju, despite never having met, immediately lock eyes from thousands of yards away and execute a complicated rescue. One of them charges forward on a horse, the other on a bike, and then they both do a series of gymnastic jumps that involves swinging from the bridge on ropes and passing a flag back and forth. (Almost every martial sequence in RRR is very difficult to describe in words, as should be the case for any good action movie.)
After all this, the boy is rescued, Bheem and Raju’s friendship is forged, and the film’s title finally flashes on-screen in full, as if Rajamouli is just now acknowledging that he’s earned the audience’s attention for the rest of the adventure ahead. Montages follow of the leads palling around, along with a masterful dance-off, multiple romances, plenty of tense fight scenes, and lots of lip-curling villainy from the occupying Brits. The thrill of RRR is not the density of its storytelling, though—it’s the exuberance of it.
I’ve invoked Marvel movies—plenty of which I enjoy—because they’re the most common example of the current American blockbuster style, one that lavishes hundreds of millions on intricate CGI action shots that often end up feeling airless, and in which even the grandest battles are executed with a depressing sameness. In those movies, giant monsters are defeated, and portals in the sky are closed, but seeing a film as visually inventive as RRR serves as a reminder of how much modern action usually follows a formula. If wonder is to be consistently found on the big screen, then Hollywood has plenty of new lessons to learn from its best competitor.