Synopsis: Karthik, who has ESP, helps his friend Panda win a betting game with his power, but this lands him in trouble with Randhai, the gangster who funded the betting operation, who, now, wants him to use his power and make a killing at a casino.
Review: For her sophomore effort, Aishwaryaa Dhanush has come up with a film that is far removed from the bleak world of her solid debut, 3. Marking this departure from grim to grime is cinematographer R Velraj (whose name is used for a cop character); in place of the brooding visuals of 3, he gives Vai Raja Vai, a playful, sprightly thriller, a grungy look (most often) that calls attention to the dirty, dangerous world which the protagonist is dragged into. The film isn't perfect, far from it, it has a few weak spots that could have been disastrous but the confidence with which Aishwaryaa manages to narrate this story helps us tide over its issues.
In a few swift strokes, Aishwaryaa gives us all that we need to know about her hero. Take away the element of ESP and Karthik (Gautham Karthik, effective) is just your normal middle class youngster with a modest job and an introvert attitude. But he has a loving family, an uncomplicated romance (Priya Anand playing his plant pathologist love interest) and clear-cut values that are his emotional support. While Aishwaryaa doesn't flesh out Karthik (or those around him) fully, we understand why he deems his power as both a gift and a curse. And Pandian aka Panda (Vivekh, continuing his career's comedian to character actor trajectory convincingly after Naan than Bala and Yennai Arindhaal), is quite a contrast to this character.
He is flashy and self-possessed but scratch the surface and we get a sad loner with questionable morals. When Panda begins to understand Karthik's gift, he doesn't mind using it for his personal gains, even though the latter sees him as a friend. The manner in which he draws Karthik into his plan is done in a convincing manner and nicely sets things up for what is to come. Similarly, we also admire how Karthik manages to get the mercurial Randhai (Daniel Balaji, who, for a change, doesn't go over the top) out of his way. The pre-interval scene where Karthik demonstrates his power to Randhai is packed with energy and while nothing quite manages to pack in the same punch as this scene, Aishwaryaa keeps the story hopping along so there is hardly any dull stretch.
The problem with Vai Raja Vai is that tonally, it is all over the place. One moment it is grungy, the next slick, then lighthearted and suddenly spoofy, so we never get a hold of what the film wants to be. And despite the under two-hour running time, the film feels 20 minute too long. The romantic track feels perfunctory and the picturisation of the songs have a 'Let's just get this over with' vibe and lack any personality. And for a film that deals with ESP, the screenplay is somewhat predictable and there are hardly any challenges for the hero to conquer. Even the casino sequence, for all the pre-release hype and the buildup it is given in the film, feels like an anti-climax. Thankfully, the climax makes up for this disappointment giving us a star turn in the form of Dhanush's special appearance and the actor has fun reprising Kokki Kumar, the impish gangster (who seems to have softened quite a bit) from Pudupettai. It is an ingenious move that would have been quite a pleasant surprise if only had the makers not revealed it in the trailers.