A good caper movie demands that you like the anti-heroes who are pulling off the heist. A movie that gives you characters doing something morally reprehensible, and expects you to root for them to succeed, takes on the responsibility of convincing you to go soft on the perpetrators. Special 26 almost meets this burden, but falls a few yards short. The movie is slickly produced and displays a winking sense of satiric humor. But it needs a more careful scripting hand, more attention to character and backstory, to elevate it to something especially memorable. The cons are clever, but the film is soulless.
Special 26 makes some nods in the direction of exploring its characters' lives and motivations. The characterization that works the best is that of P.K. Sharma (Anupam Kher), the oldest member of the group which drives investigators crazy by posing as government officials and confiscating cash and goods. Driven by Anupam Kher's thoughtful and touching performance, Sharma ping-pongs between anxiety and gutsiness. He quails before each of the gang's capers, though he performs with confidence during them. The thought of improvising worries him, and of getting caught even more so. Sharma wants to retire, and when the film briefly visits his Punjab home for his eldest daughter's wedding, we see why: He has a gorgeous family, a swarm of beautiful children and yet another on the way. Sharma has reasons to pull off heist after heist, but he also has compelling reasons to hang up his spikes. His conflict is portrayed sympathetically and with depth.
With respect to the rest of the gang, though - and to their nemesis, CBI Agent Wasim Khan (Manoj Bajpai) - the movie gives short shrift to this kind of motivation and backstory. We are given peeks into their domestic life, but these raise more questions than they answer. Joginder (Rajesh Sharma) lives in a crowded joint household with some elderly relatives. And Iqbal (Kishor Kadam) is barely scraping together a middle-class existence; he and his wife share domestic chores because he can't afford a servant. It is a mystery why either of these men live such humble lives. The gang has pulled off 50 cons across the nation; what happened to all that money?
And then there is Ajay (Akshay Kumar), evidently the gang's leader, mastermind, and chief shot-caller. What Special 26 offers us of his motivation is his clandestine love affair with a literal girl next door, the sad-eyed schoolteacher Priya (Kajal Aggarwal). This storyline is a disaster; it nearly sinks the movie. Akshay Kumar paired with a woman half his age is increasingly stomach-churning, and here there is simply no reason for it. Even if Ajay has to have a love interest (there is nothing about the story that requires him to), she could be ten years older than Priya without any compromise to this facet of the story. And whatever drives Ajay's criminal endeavors, it does not appear to be his love for her or any financial need on her part. Indeed, despite the slow-motion cavorting that Ajay and Priya do in soft-focus ballads purporting to show us Ajay's tender, human side, Special 26 is woefully weak when it comes to painting his character. When Priya asks him why he continues to carry off these cons, Ajay resorts to a time-worn chestnut of an answer: It's all I know. And that is all we get.
Special 26 is not a dreadful movie; it is entertaining enough while it is happening. The cons, especially the climactic job, have a great deal of cleverness and guts to them. The friendship between Ajay and Sharma has some sweet and genuine moments; indeed, it is far more satisfying than the relationship between Ajay and Priya. There are some fine performances in addition to Anupam Kher's, especially from Jimmy Shiergill as Ranveer Singh, a contrite, green Delhi police officer burned by Ajay's audacity, and from Manoj Bajpai as the CBI inspector determined to foil the gang's plans. Divya Dutta (a house favorite here at Filmi Geek) is always a pleasure, and here, as always, is a pleasure in too small a portion; she plays a colleague of Ranveer Singh who gets about one-fifth as much screen time. There is a crispness to movie's dialogue and photography, and the little bit of fat (such as Manoj Bajpai's athletic chase of and melee with a man who turns out not to be connected with the story in any way) is forgivable, because smartly executed.
But all through, the sense that something is missing nags. The feeling doesn't coalesce until afterward, when I think back over the film and the men I just spent two hours with. Then I realize how little I know about them, how many shortcuts the movie has taken in presenting their lives and their friendships and their passions and their motivations. Just as these men con their marks, posing as CBI agents or tax officials, Special 26 cons me. It poses as a touching tale about a group of friends and their last big job, and escapes with the loot while I slowly realize just how superficial it is, how lazy the scriptwriters have been at breathing life and dimension into its characters. Ajay and Sharma's personal histories, why lying and thievery is all they know, even how these men who hail from four corners of the country came to form a notorious band of con-artists - none of these questions is answered. And without these answers, Special 26 rings hollow, all brains and no heart.