“They’re here to witness my swag,” growls Indian super-spy Tiger midway through “Tiger 3,” a mostly staid, but still satisfying Indian anti-terrorist thriller. Tiger is played by Salman Khan, whose square-jawed style sets the pace for the Yash Raj Spy Universe, a Marvelified Bollywood action series starring the Hindi-speaking stars of the late ‘90s and early ‘00s.
Now Khan’s family-loving nationalist hero is just going through the formulaic motions established by “Ek Tha Tiger” and “Tiger Zinda Hai.” In “Tiger 3,” flag-waving man of action Tiger (Khan) fights his own Pakistani super-spy wife Zoya (Katrina Kaif) in order to stop Pakistani terrorists from derailing Pakistan/India peace talks. Nothing looks new because nothing original was attempted.
“Tiger 3” most closely resembles “Tiger Zinda Hai,” a superior sequel as well as a weirdly sunny hostage thriller set in contemporary Iraq. Unfortunately, Tiger and Zoya’s diplomatic capers now seem predictable, right down to this new movie’s introductory twist: Zoya’s plotting against her own Prime Minister with Pakistani terrorist Aatish Rehman (Emraan Hashmi), a disgruntled ex-spy.
This time, Tiger’s not just trying to foster good relations between two countries, but also trying to keep his family intact. That superficially personal twist doesn’t greatly enhance or subtract from “Tiger 3”’s box-checking charms, including Shah Rukh Khan’s extended cameo appearance as well as a heap of Hollywood-cribbed story beats and clichés.
“Tiger 3” begins with as much cornball swag as a live-action “G.I. Joe” cartoon. Tiger boldly mounts a one-man rescue mission at the personal request of Maithili Menon (Revathi), the no-nonsense chief of India’s Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) spy agency. Tiger succeeds in his impossible-seeming mission and rescues Gopi Arya (Ranvir Shorey), his ex-supervisor at RAW. In exchange, Gopi implicates Zoya as a Pakistani double agent right before he expires, seconds after he and Tiger return to India.
Then there’s a flashback to Zoya’s past, which does and doesn’t explain Gopi’s accusation. Next an unremarkable musical number where Tiger wonders, through song, if he can trust Zoya. Then a bunch more narrative set-up and throat-clearing, all to prop up the plot against his wife and his son Junior (Sartaj Kakkar). There are very few surprises along the way, though at one point Salman Khan negligibly disguises himself with a red hippie sweat band and a shaggy paste-on beard. Tiger dramatically removes his beard before he fights his wife. Then they make up and plan to foil Rehman together.
“Tiger 3” definitely feels like the fifth entry in a franchise, for the better (usually) and the worse (obviously). Tiger’s latest adventure features better action choreography and more storytelling polish than “Pathaan,” Shah Rukh Khan’s rickety comeback vehicle and the most recent extension of the Yash Raj Spy Universe. Tiger made a perfunctory cameo appearance in “Pathaan,” so nobody should be surprised to learn that the Badshah of Bollywood returns the favor in “Tiger 3.” It’s a superior guest spot, too, complete with goofier dad joke banter and more spectacular special effects and stunt work. If you cross your eyes, you might even believe that both Salman and Shah Rukh were on the same set at the same time. Advantage: “Tiger 3.”
Salman’s latest seat-warmer also benefits from being a second sequel. The filmmakers clearly have a better idea of how to make this type of movie now, unlike the creators of “Ek Tha Tiger,” Tiger’s lifeless 2012 debut. “Tiger 3” is also a better buddy movie. Kaif gets to steal a couple of scenes, just like she did in “Tiger Zinda Hai,” including a dynamically choreographed and lightly horny cat fight set in a Russian bathhouse. Kaif still looks better with a gun than Khan does, but even he seems more at ease than before as a pumped-up Tom Cruise clone, dangling from the ceiling and leaping into helicopters with his signature boyish smirk.
“Tiger 3” might be a milestone for the Yash Raj Spy movies. After 11 years, these programmatic wannabe blockbusters are finally defined by the same lightly likable, creative committee-calibrated genericism that’s come to characterize Marvel’s artery-stiffening fast-food cinema. “Tiger 3” could also be a passable fluke, since who knows how convoluted and/or compelling the series might become once it unites Salman and Shah Rukh’s marquee-topping heroes with Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff’s characters from “War,” whose sequel is now in production.
You still might get what you want from “Tiger 3” during the action and musical scenes, which have their moments. A holiday crowd might be the ideal audience for this family-friendly potboiler. Everyone else should wait until “Tiger 3” suddenly appears on some high-trafficked streaming service, a swaggier and more surprising move than anything Salman attempts in his latest money-maker.
In theaters now.
Tiger 3 (2023)
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