You got to love this Neeraj Pandey. For, he has his heart in the right place. Special 26 is in many ways similar to his fantastic debut thriller A Wednesday. It packs in the collective angst of society towards a certain group and provides catharsis through the actions of the protagonist. But there are departures as well, if the first was about vigilante justice, this isn't half as righteous. It's no Robin Hood.

The year is 1987 when roads belonged to Marutis and scooters. When there were no mobile phones. No password-cracking technology. No high security safety vaults or gadgets that could help cops or robbers. In many ways, Special 26 is the opposite of everything that heist movies have today. Like the Oceans franchise, it's a throwback to those days of yore when there was honour among thieves, a certain amount of integrity in what and how they did — not the despicably cruel, cunning, murderous ones that infest the likes of Race.

Like Soderberg, Neeraj too looks back to see how films used to do it in the sixties. Good old smarts. A rocking background score. And nail-biting suspense.

Only half as cool as Johnny Gaddar but that in itself is quite an achievement for a mainstream Akshay Kumar film.

In simply one of his best films ever, Akshay Kumar settles in comfortably as part of the powerhouse ensemble, letting two of India's finest actors — Anupam Kher and Manoj Bajpayee — take on equally important roles and manages to hold his own. Jimmy Shergill has a slightly smaller part to play but shines as well. Every character is charming and likeable in a way that your loyalties are split. This is what A Wednesday did as well. Take two sides of the law, both right in their own way and make them face off while challenging your sense of right and wrong.

There's this brilliant scene later in the film when the twin protagonists meet over a drink at the bar. It's a little similar to that final scene in A Wednesday, only that here it happens before the climax when the honest cop (who earlier asks his superior for a promotion and pay hike by threatening to start taking bribes) drops a 100-rupee note on the floor as the crook leaves and calls out to him: “I think you dropped this.” Just to check if there's any goodness in the crook.

You have to watch the film to see how that scene pays off but it's that extra depth that the characters have and the socio-political subtext that makes this a really Special film.

Neeraj Pandey knows his craft. He knows to keep the pace going. He knows to keep you on your toes and surprise you through misdirection. Which is why it's also a little disconcerting that he compromised by putting the songs in, just to give the film mainstream appeal. Kahaani demonstrated that you don't need songs (or even stars) to make a thriller fetch Rs. 100 crore at the box office.

As pretty as Kajal Agarwal is in the film, we didn't really need to see her eat footage through the songs in a heist thriller. And we get plenty of time to second-guess the filmmaker here.

Yet, it works. On pure charm. And cheek.

Special 26

Genre: Heist

Director: Neeraj Pandey

Cast: Akshay Kumar, Anupam Kher, Manoj Bajpayee, Jimmy Shergill, Divya Dutta, Kajal Agarwal

Storyline: A bunch of lovable conmen who “raid” the rich and the corrupt posing as CBI/Income Tax officers have an honest CBI officer on their trail.

Bottomline: A fairly compelling, charming and stylish heist film that slows down only because of the songs thrust into the narrative