Thalaivaa begins, as all films in multiplexes do these days, with a fairly long and graphic advisory on the hazards of tobacco consumption. While I appreciate the thought, I cannot help but chuckle at the irony of placing it at the beginning of a film about an underworld don and the son who takes his place. The characters in this film could inject heroin into their eyeballs every morning and still stand a better chance of being shot or hacked to death than ODing.

But this is a minor quibble. By far the biggest criminal act committed in the film is the screenplay, which makes a mockery of the opening dedication to the director’s gurus, Mani Ratnam and Ram Gopal Varma, two filmmakers whose best-known films have been set in the same milieu.

While Satya is, in my opinion, the more accomplished script and is extraordinarily well-directed, Nayakan works better at an emotional level by creating a sigma field around the hero for much of its running length and making us care about what happens to him. These two films, between them, encapsulate the reasons why we love good movies:  Create a plausible universe whose workings are a source of fascination, populate it with characters who can draw us in, and find an emotional truth in the storytelling. Thalaivaa, in contrast, knows the words but not the music.

The film begins with the death of Varadaraja Mudaliar, the man who inspired Nayakan. In the power stuggle that follows, one man emerges victorious. But in order to insulate his son from the life he has to lead, he sends him away with a friend to Australia. The boy grows up into an adult who talks to his dad regularly but operates under the assumption that he is some sort of businessman. When he comes home and finds out the truth, circumstances force him to take up his father’s mantle.

Apart from the obvious implausibility of the idea that a man could remain so clueless about his dad in the highly networked world of today, this is not a bad storyline. But the script is an utter letdown. Neither does it draw a convincing portrait of the Mumbai underworld and the characters who inhabit it, nor does it make us implicit participants in the hero’s transformation from carefree youth to dreaded don (or uber-vigilante, if you will). A crucial moment, where he has to consciously choose a violent path rather than just react to the violence directed at him, is well-conceived but not as well-executed as it needs to be. By the next morning, the man has accepted his role and what it entails. Instead of a character arc, you see the end points.

The tragedy here is that this could’ve been a half-decent film. Sathyaraj brings an understated dignity to his part, and Vijay chooses to play his character on a quieter key than he normally would have a few years ago. Over the last few films, he seems to have consciously dialed it down, and this is not a bad thing. He gets one scene to unleash his inner ranter and raver in a hospital ward when he rips a rioter a new one. And even then, he raises his intensity but not his voice. After the high-decibel death metal thrashing of Surya in Singam 2, this is a blessing. The romance between Vijay and Amala Paul has an unforced charm. The story goes nowhere for the first hour, but the film is far lighter on its feet (in more ways than one) during this stretch than elsewhere. A crucial  sequence in the final third where hero and villain play a cat-and-mouse game while searching for an incriminating videotape is beautifully done. There are no jarring shifts in tone, even when the action moves from the quiet roads of Sydney to the mean streets of Mahim.

There’s around half an hour of pretty good stuff in there, which is more than most films can claim. But wading through three hours of dreck to find it is a bridge too far.