For a change, a fight sequence with a ferocious hyena is used not to mount the lead actor as a superhuman saviour but instead to drive home the point that he chooses empathy over gratuitous violence. “Everyone is trying to kill it, nobody is trying to understand,” comments Leo’s Parthiban (Vijay). Parthiban believes the hyena is lashing out because it’s scared and cornered; in a way, that is how Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Leo plays out.
Before his daughter being in danger forces his hand, Parthiban is a picture of serenity – he is a dutiful husband to his wife Sathya (Trisha) and an adoring father to his kids Madhi and Sidharth.
Between his duties at the cafe and being called in by the forest rangers in his small town in Himachal Pradesh, Parthiban has neither time nor inclination for violent encounters. And yet, this bubble is burst and he finds himself stuck in a fight for survival and a case of ‘mistaken identity’.
An intricately designed and expertly shot fight sequence at Parthiban’s cafe reveals that he knows his way around a weapon and has cat-like reflexes. This doesn’t fit into what we know about Parthiban but it would make sense if he is actually a former gangster Leo Das who is presumed dead. But Leo’s father Anthony (Sanjay Dutt) and uncle Harold (Arjun Sarja), both introduced amidst scores of henchmen in true Lokesh Cinematic Universe fashion, believe Parthiban is Leo.
Despite the massy, hero-driven space in cinema being overpopulated, Kanagaraj has managed to carve out an identity of his own. He gives his characters and story space to develop organically and that is also one of Leo’s strengths but a shoddy screenplay takes away from the magic. The film’s first half is clearly the better half – the conflict is set up, the characters get to develop at their pace, we see the influence of David Cronenberg’s classic A History of Violence.
While Vijay gets both the Joey Cusack and the Rajinikanth from Jailer treatment, Trisha gets to only scratch the surface of a character like Edie Stall. There’s a fierce resolve in the actor’s eyes that never gets to materialise on screen – Sathya is positioned as a fierce protector but we never get to see what that stands for.
Vijay is in top form in Leo – he lights up the screen in every scene; never missing a beat. While Leo lacks the engaging nature and charisma of a Vikram, it’s Vijay’s star act and his chemistry with Trisha that almost convinces you to look away from the flaws. It is Vijay like we’ve never seen before – playing a father of two who kindly pets a hyena.
Even as the second half gets more convoluted and begins to feel like one action set piece after another, barely held together by LCU easter eggs, Vijay fights and shoulders the film.
Even though the action sequences are slick, engaging, and exquisite (due credit to Anbumani and Arivumani aka Anbariv), some scenes could’ve used a sharper edit. Some of the music comes across more juvenile than effective and this becomes even more jarring when contrasted with the brilliant, toe-tapping track that is Anirudh Ravichander’s ‘Naa Ready’. The background score, however, in true Anirudh fashion only adds to the film.
But the inventive stunts and engaging score don’t have a screenplay to fall back on. Further, without a memorable villain, oftentimes the massy appeal of a film like this falls flat. I have great appreciation for the way Kanagaraj balances visible and implied violence – it’s a balance not many filmmakers of the genre understand.
So, even though I wouldn’t necessarily write off Lokesh Kanagaraj or the LCU (because who else could've convinced me to hoot for the entry of a hyena?), Leo rests very heavily on Vijay’s shoulders.