Playing a hero is the ultimate for an actor. But here is an Ultimate Star, who dares to differ. Even while ruling the roost as a leading man, Ajith makes a defiant detour and strides on the path of villainy like a colossus, in Mankatha (U/A). Again, it is complete self-confidence that makes him showcase his salt and pepper hairstyle throughout — no other hero would attempt it, unless of course he's playing an old man. And even then, the film is bound to have a segment that shows him in all the joie de vivre of youth.

In Vaali too, if you watched an Ajith as a scary, mute pervert, you also had a foil in the form of a suave, straightforward hero. But in Mankatha his role brazenly oozes negativity and he doesn't bother to justify it. It is this singularly distinct trait that makes Vinayak Mahadev (Ajith), as the main character, unique. No remorse for chicanery, not even regret — that's Vinayak for you. Maniacally money-minded, this villain dictates the terms, and be it the law abider or law breaker he'd better fall into line. This new Ajith appeals!

With admirable nonchalance, director Venkat Prabhu and hero Ajith have broken the myth about the image of a protagonist in our films. Also deviating from the norm, for probably the first time in our cinema, retributive justice has been given the go by! May you thieve and prosper, says Mankatha! Venkat Prabhu allows you to make a decision about the rights and wrongs in life. He doesn't sit in judgment. Neither does he preach.

M is a story of five conspirators who lay their hands on a lot of money. When it comes to dividing the booty, problems arise. Not a new premise, by any means. But with each trying to outwit the other in the greed game, Venkat Prabhu builds a pyramid of intelligent moves, as each clambers to rise above the other at every turn. And when matters plateau out in a suspenseful climax, you realise that there aren't just five loot hunters, but more! Yet strangely, the raciness you would expect in such an action-filled line isn't sustained. Murderers in Mankatha are so many that you lose count. And it irks to see Ajith puffing away on his spliff without respite.

Yet M's novel features are many. Besides Ajith's stylish looks and effective portrayal of the character of an erring, arrogant policeman is the ever-agile action king, Arjun. Giving leverage to a senior hero in a story that has the main actor dominating the show in every frame is a challenge. But Venkat Prabhu takes it up with confidence and delivers with aplomb. Never mind the plausibility factor, the fact is Arjun makes his presence felt, particularly in the twist at the end. Somewhere down the line, M brings to mind Sylvester Stallone's Shade, the 2003 card game thriller.

More than heroine Trisha, or even Andrea and Anjali, it is the vamp played by Lakshmi Rai, who has been awarded prominence. Rai provides the oomph, but you can't help feeling that her figure-hugging costumes and drenched-in-the-pool outfits would make a better impact if the lady watches her waistline. A bevy of beauties but none makes a mark!

And you can't blame the audience which boos when Andrea, in the hands of the killer, howls in fear. The actor could have worked harder on the scene. It is a substantial role that has come Vaibhav's way — he is trying to better himself with every Venkat Prabhu film, but surely he can do more. Premgi's antics are to an extent enjoyable.

The use of DI and dissolves, and the slick cuts to the past spell class. In fact, the handling of scenes of recall after the hero's hangover is very different. The editing duo of Praveen and Srikanth deserves special mention, and so does Shakti Saravanan's contribution from behind the lens. Yuvan's music, including the title track, theme music and the ‘Nee Naan' number, are awesome, but when songs impede the pace of the narration they become too much of a good thing. How come Vaali's verses get more youthful as he ages? Just listen to the words of ‘Machi Open the Bottle …' or ‘Vaada Bin Laada' and you'll know what I mean!

After a listless trip to Goa, Prabhu has laid out a filling spread this time. An engaging game of cat and mouse that springs several surprises!

Mankatha

Genre: Action

Director: Venkat Prabhu

Cast: Ajith, Arjun, Trisha, Premgi, Vaibhav, Lakshmi Rai, Anjali, Andrea

Storyline: Cricket, bookies, betting, double-cross and the aftermath

Bottomline: Ajith's grand 50!

Keywords: Mankatha