Screens at CIFF: 10/11 & 10/13 & 10/15
World premiere: 18 May, 2013, Cannes International Film Festival

The "what if?" film - watching as a situation plays out in vastly different ways, based on very small choices made by characters early on - is inherently gimmicky, but that doesn't mean the gimmick has to be bad. By which I mean, the existence of Sliding Doors doesn't negate the existence of Run Lola Run, and the sins of the one aren't a patch on the tremendous merits of the other.

The Indian cop thriller Monsoon Shootout is, in the grand scheme of things, neither a Sliding Doors nor a Run Lola Run: every one of its three segments contains moments that are corny and trite as all hell, and every one of them also includes some of the swellest visual beats and narrative gestures that you could hope to see in a film of this sort. We like it when movies are of a piece with themselves, because it makes it easier to levy grand pronouncements about their quality and achievements, but things aren't always as straightforward as that, or indeed straightforward at all. The fact that a movie whose overarching theme is that real life gets sprawling and messy in ways we can't predict or account for should itself be so hard to cram into a narrow window of "this is good" or "this is bad" is itself rather pleasing, though not, of course, as pleasing as if it was "this is good, so damn good, seriously you guys" all the way from start to finish.

Even at its most creative, this isn't trying very hard to push the boundaries of its most ancient and hoary of genres. Our main character is Adi (Vijay Varma, likable but a bit thin), a young Mumbai cop trying to find a place for himself under the command of Khan (Neeraj Kabi), a hard-ass with a penchant for shooting first and hiding the papers that show how you didn't ask questions later. This is, in fact, something of the official policy of the Mumbai police force, as we see it presented in the movie: so many things are going wrong that it's better to take out whatever obvious bad guys you come across as soon as you come across them.

The particular bad guy that Adi is hunting for is a real bastard, too, going under the name of Shiva (Nawazuddin Siddiqui, effectively fairy tale-ish in his villainy), introduced in the film's gorgeously-edited opening sequence that finds several hired killers springing a trap on someone unlucky enough to have gotten on the wrong side of the local gang leader. Shiva is the most particularly savage of the lot, favoring an axe over more remote, quicker tools (he is, indeed, known as Axe Guy to the police). Now, Adi's somewhat gentle, humanist approach to crime fighting has done a shitty job of keeping Shiva in check, to his boss's and his boss's boss's annoyance, and throughout the opening portion of the movie, we see him yelled at in every way, with his value as a policeman, a male, and a human being all called into question, and then, during a torrential cloudburst heralding the onset of the monsoon season, he finds himself standing in an alley at the end of a foot chase, staring an apparently unarmed Shiva in the face with a gun in his hand.

This event, so important that it gives the film its title, is the linchpin of the remaining film: we see, in order, the events that play out as Adi either does not shoot, or shoots to kill, or shoots to wound and take Shiva into custody. It should be noted that every problem I have with the film comes after this point; the "baseline" sequence that starts the movie is almost uniformly excellent, with great images of Mumbai as seen from a cop's point of view. And indeed, some of the biggest flaws come about directly as a result of the fantasy structure, with director Amit Kumar (who is, throughout, better at finding visual solutions to the story than actually telling the story) fumbling the transitions between sequences; it ends up being a little schematic how these are presented as the workings inside Adi's mind as he makes up his mind what to do (the totally useless coda is especially schematic, and indeed makes some things that hadn't seemed like problems earlier on suddenly feel very problematic indeed). And the film's strain to make sure that each of the stories is distinct plays a little unfair at points, particularly on the question of what Shiva is carrying in a bag when he's standing in that alley.

On the other hand, Kumar's nifty echoing of imagery, and the repetition of lines in all three sequences in wildly different contexts, does exactly what the film claims to on the label, and with outstanding success: the way that each tendril of Monsoon Shootout takes place in a single narrative and moral universe but with the characters all in profoundly different registers at every beat is quite striking, offering just enough of a sense of fatalism (e.g. Adi must cut his arm, but it doesn't matter how) to seem like there's something grand and mystical to all this that transcends a simple storytelling gimmick. It's interleaved in a way that feels genuinely dense and expressive of character, rather than just providing a roadmap for the attentive to feel clever about themselves, and I appreciate that.

All of this doesn't quite add up to the moral investigation that you might assume; there's no "right" solution, and frankly, Kumar's script has to make some pretty dubious jumps to make sure that no matter what Adi does, bad things will happen (particularly dubious: the tragedies that befall Shiva's son in the "Shiva dies" scenario). This is a game; it does not work out complex psychological and ethical situations. But that said, it's an awfully fun game, right up until its hip, nihilistic ending makes the whole thing feel a little worse than it actually was. Even granting that, it's still an entirely enjoyable ride, as long as you don't go looking for it to do any more.