A wry sense of humor is essential when attempting a remake, one that combines love and affection for a childhood favorite with the ability to look a bit askance at one's own fixation. And if I may point to any one overarching failure where Farhan Akhtar's Don is concerned, it would be that in its humorless earnestness it drains the fun out of one of the most engaging Bollyscripts ever, resulting in a film that is plodding, and while good looking, let down by a pervading flatness. That being said Don is really two films: the first half is an earnest remake that nevertheless held my attention throughout, and is easily the cleverer portion; the second half is a cross between a remake and a sequel, and takes the film to unexpected (though mostly unfortunate) places. Disappointingly, the second half is about as Hollywoodized a product as one can imagine, and while one appreciates Farhan Akhtar's need to put his own stamp on the tale, it doesn't gel with the first half, and is by the end too farcical to stand on its own terms. In a nutshell: the film seems less and less of a remake as it progresses, but it doesn't end up as a creditable independent effort.
Akhtar has moved very far from his Bollywood roots (as I had suspected from the very first stills and posters of the film), which in itself wouldn't be a fatal issue were he giving us a strong Hollywoodized Hindi film. But Don, to an even greater extent than Lakshya, falls between two stools, and often seems derivative of a certain sort of American film (indeed several action sequences are lifted directly from more than one Bond film, Swordfish, etc.). As I had written prior to the film's release, a remake fails if it is no better than "mere" tribute to the original, and needs a raison d'etre beyond the desire to honor the creative father (in art as in the Old Testament, the ultimate Father is a rather angry and demanding Deity).
The plot? Well, if you need to ask you're reading the wrong review, my friend. Don't get me wrong, Farhan Akhtar's Don adds a number of plot changes, but I can't really discuss those without spoiling it for those of you who haven't seen the film yet. Suffice it to say that the new Don is clearly the work of a man who bought into the Don mythos to such an extent that he could never stomach the early point at which the Don character was written out of the 1978 classic.
No discussion of Don (whether the 1978 or the 2006 version) can be entirely separate from the performance of the actor in the lead role: Bachchan's 1978 stunner is justly famous, and I see it as one of the peaks of Bombay masala cinema: as Don and as U.P. bhaiyya, Bachchan presents us with the definitive embodiment of both uber-cool and rustic chic, respectively. In a word, to say that Shah Rukh Khan has a tough act to follow would be putting it mildly, though given his ambition it is only fitting that he be judged by the loftiest standards. Khan is clever enough to try and appropriate the Don character as his own by transforming the unflappable diamond hard cool of Bachchan's gangster into the sort of flamboyant, sneering showboat that used to be a Shah Rukh Khan speciality. Unfortunately for Khan, his cause isn't helped by Akhtar's creative choices, which hew so closely to the original in the first half of the film as to raise the specter of Bachchan again and again. Perhaps that is unavoidable in a remake situation, but if so, then greater talent and charisma than Khan's is required to make the ride convincing. [Aside: the one exception is Khan's brilliant "Romantic baaten mujhe bahut bore karti hain Sonia," not only a line from the 1978 Don but also wonderfully evocative given Khan's own career playing one romantic hero after another].
All in all, however, it is not Khan as Don who is unacceptable (though I certainly found him quite uncompelling), but Khan in his (mercifully brief) stint as Vijay. Akhtar's decision to have his hero essay the role of a U.P. bhaiyya is surely unfortunate, and shows muddled thinking on his part: in order to make the film and the role Khan's own, what was needed was a Vijay who would not be a chora Ganga kinaare waala but instead would be the archetypal Shah Rukh Khan persona: an urbane Raj/Rahul type thrown into the life of another. And although I am not a fan of Khan's performances in general, I submit that such a creative choice would have been more in keeping with Khan's image and strengths as a star.
The rest of the cast was variable: Priyanka Chopra as Roma suggested much, but her role was shorn of the needed fireworks for the most part, with one honorable exception, a rollicking action sequence with Shah Rukh Khan after the interval, simply the best action sequence involving a female I have ever seen in a Hindi film. Om Puri was wasted as Malik, making this the second time in two films Akhtar has wasted a brilliant actor (it is hard to forgive either him or Amitabh Bachchan the triviality of the latter's role in Lakshya), but Boman Irani as D.C.P. DeSilva was superb throughout, except for in his final scene of the film, where not even Irani could elevate the idiotic material he was given. A special mention must be made of Pawan Malhotra, who shone as Narang, and elevated every scene he was in. Isha Koppikar as Anita and Kareena Kapoor as Kamini didn't have much to do, but were pretty ok in what they did do. Arjun Rampal as Jasjit, and the actor who played Mac, illustrate the problem that many of Bollywood's "hipper" contemporary directors seem to have, namely an addiction to buff, young bodies irrespective of the demands of the script: to have Mac be played by a young studly sort makes as much sense as. . . except it doesn't make any sense at all.
All in all, the film disappoints, the more so because it seems to me Farhan Akhtar is, on the evidence of this film, frittering away his talent trying to be multiplex India's answer to Mission Impossible or Face-Off, instead of the stylish chronicler of yuppie India's lives, loves, and conformities that we saw in Dil Chahta Hai. There are flashes of Akhtar's cerebrality in Don (though nothing matches the opera sequence in Dil Chahta Hai), most notably in the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that Don is behind the pilfering of Edward Munch's The Scream, which we see propped against a wall of Don's vault (and surely that legendary painting -- one of the most recognizable artistic expressions of twentieth century existential angst -- is an appropriate subject for a tongue-in-cheek joke in a film where identity is nothing if not mutable), and in Akhtar's good-natured fun at the expense of Bollywood's atrocious "disco" 1980s by means of the Aaj ki Raat video, specifically Isha Koppikar's frilly black dress and Priyanka Chopra's sleek shimmer: damn, the 1980s never looked so good. There are some arresting visuals too: the flickering club lights by which Khan first sees Kareena Kapoor highlight her pale face and kohl-rimmed eyes, which have rarely looked more bewitching; and the overhead shot that introduces Priyanka Chopra, highlighting the contrast between her ebony hair and training clothes and her bronzed arms, is beautifully compressed, Chopra's tensed form immediately shading her as both warrior and lover. Alas such moments are few and far between, and ultimately little of the interesting Farhan Akhtar's personality shines through in this film, which could well have been the product of a major American film studio. That is a pity: because Don (1978) deserved better; and so did Farhan Akhtar.