At the beginning of Arima Nambi, Arjun (Vikram Prabhu) and his friends are unwinding with drinks. They do the usual things youngsters in Tamil cinema do when they unwind with drinks. Their conversation zeroes in on sarakku, figure. There’s a song. There’s dancing. Only, this isn’t a TASMAC bar. It isn’t a kuthu paattu. And it isn’t the typical drunken dance, with tottering steps. The director, Anand Shankar, has a certain sensibility, and it shines right through. This is Hard Rock Café. It’s a hard-rock number. The choreography is the kind you’d find on MTV.

The next scene occurs in a gym, where Arjun gets a text from Anamika (Priya Anand), whom he met at the bar. And then we slip into their first date, in an expensive restaurant. They drink red wine, lots of it. The banter is casual, flirty, urban. They discuss his star sign (the phrase raasi palan, as used by Anamika, feels so wrong) and their possible compatibility. Much later, when they’re informed that the bar is closed, she tells him that she has a bottle of vodka at home. The night is still young.

Genre: Conspiracy thriller
Director: Anand Shankar
Cast: Vikram Prabhu, Priya Anand.
Storyline: The heroine is kidnapped. The hero uncovers a dastardly plot.
Bottomline:A rock-solid Hollywood-style thriller.

It takes a certain amount of guts to pull off an opening like this. The average Tamil filmmaker doesn’t go there because in his mind the hero and the heroine have to be folks that all of Tamil Nadu can identify with — the A centres, the B centres, the C centres. A sozzled heroine taking the equally sozzled hero home? What will the ‘family audience’ think? And will viewers, in far-flung hamlets, warm up to names like Arjun, Anamika?

Anand Shankar thumbs his nose at all this conventional wisdom. His is a Hollywood sensibility, and his film needs it because it’s a conspiracy thriller and the only way to make this kind of movie is to make it the Hollywood way. (The classical Tamil title, meaning lionheart, is perhaps a nod to the ethos that isn’t evoked here.) There’s no flashy cutting, no mood-killing romance (except for an ill-advised duet), no comedy track. The mood is tense, atmospheric. And the craft is solid. The score is from Hollywood too — a nerve-jangling mix of synth and percussions. The first half is fantastic.

When was the last time we saw a thriller in Tamil cinema that left us with this much pleasure at being manipulated? Arima Nambi may not be great art, but at least for a while, it’s a supremely well-engineered machine. There’s a preposterous sequence involving a car in a no-parking zone, and it segues to a bank robbery and an escape, and it keeps building. It’s ridiculous when you think about it, but we’re all juiced up — we’re not thinking. We’re holding our breath, laughing at the audacity with which it’s all pulled off.

The story kicks in when Anamika is kidnapped. Who? Why? These questions will have to wait. We will get our bearings once Arjun gets his. And slowly, we see how slyly the film begins to pay homage to the Tamil masala-movie tradition. In a Hollywood thriller — say, one of the Bourne movies (recalled here in a superbly staged action stretch) — the hero is so quick-witted and resourceful and skilled at outwitting villains because he’s been trained. Arjun, on the other hand, doesn’t need to be a special-ops guy. He can do all these things because he’s the hero in a Tamil movie. We don’t ask Rajinikanth or Vijay what training they had, do we?

There are contrivances that I didn’t quite buy (they aren’t logical, and sometimes too much of a coincidence) — but the narrative hurtles along and I didn’t really stop to care. There’s a fair amount of smarts too. So you’re on the run and you manage to kill the man who’s chasing you. What next? You fish out his wallet and take the money, of course. And there are surprising touches all around. Arjun, we learn, likes to frequent desigirls.com. The family audience, by now, has positively fainted.

Vikram Prabhu comes off as somewhat inhibited. He seems to be holding back when we want him to fire on all cylinders. But this isn’t the kind of movie that needs great performances (though MS Baskar chips in with an excellent cameo). This kind of movie only needs a strong director, with a certain sensibility, and that it has.

There’s just one enormous problem (besides the length). We learn far too early about the backstory that motivates the villain, and it’s an utterly underwhelming backstory. These thrillers need to be driven by something more sinister, more far-reaching. It makes the second half less riveting. (Why didn’t the director save the reveal for the end?) And it’s laughable that the entire police force is reduced to the equivalent of henchmen. But we’ve suspended our disbelief for films far less worthy. Why begin to pick on this?