Among the countless lovers of action and adventure across the globe, is there even one who doesn’t appreciate the thrill of larger than life warriors pitting their might against one another in the golden ember of a sand pit glowing in the afternoon sun? “Sultan” sure does and makes it a point to kick off on just such an ideal scene.
It proves to be the right move and -though the movie is arguably being a bit longer than the story it’s telling requires with dips into clichéd territory- it reaches for the top ultimately emerging victorious, like its heroic title character.
Aided with the build of an accomplished bodybuilder, Salman Khan steps into the lead as the film’s title character, wrestling champ Sultan Ali Khan, while Anushka Sharma portrays Aarfa, Sultan’s wrestling equal and his estranged wife. Amit Sadh portrays Aakash Oberoi, an MMA promoter hoping to boost his flailing organization with Sultan’s help, while Randeep Hooda portrays our hero’s coach, Fateh Singh. Sultan will certainly need all the help he can get too, as the set of opponents he will face in the upcoming fight include some devastatingly powerful MMA fighters played by Marrese Crump and Marko Zaror!
India’s up-and-coming MMA promoter Aakash Oberoi recognizes that his organization is in some serious need of a revamp and believes that the answer lies in recruiting a home grown fighter talent to the next competition. India’s one-time wrestling legend Sultan Ali Khan consistently proves to be the number one recommendation.
Unfortunately, Aakash soon finds out the tragic reason why Sultan left the wrestling world behind…Eight years earlier, he took up wrestling as a part of his romantic pursuit of local champion Aarfa, and succeeded not only in winning her hand in marriage but also a ton of local and international trophies with it. However, Sultan’s ego grew just as quickly as his collection of medals and his last competition took him out of the country right as his son was born only to soon after die of blood anemia, something Sultan alone was capable of preventing due to his rare blood type.
Now estranged from Aarfa and forsaking his athletic pursuits, Sultan ultimately agrees to enter the upcoming competition when he learns that the winner’s purse will be enough to fund the establishment of a blood bank in his home town. He had so far been diligently pursuing this goal bysavinghis meagre earningsas his way of atoning for his son’s demise.
You truly have to marvel at the training and dietary regimen Salman Khan must’ve undergone to portray Sultan. He goes from the body of a guy training to be the next Mr. Universe to a totally out of practice couch potato and back again in the space of slightly less than three hours, when most action films only require their leading man to go to one physical extreme and stay there.
Like Sultan himself, however, Mr. Khan is game for the challenge that lies before him. The film’s abundant wrestling-oriented fight sequences, coordinated by the ever reliable Larnell Stovall, frequently resemble gladiatorial matches in ancient Rome, with Sultanalways sanding his bare hands before marching onto the mat with what sounds like a third of the population of India chanting his name for his next fight.
The film’s first wrestling match in the sand pit is handled with such solid skill that I actually started wishing more of Sultan’s fights took place in this setting rather than a conventional wrestling mat or MMA cage, as takes place later in the film. It’s a hard formula to master, to be sure, but the combination of state-of-the-art fight choreography with the right kind of cinematography (such as a mid-summer afternoon sun) and a pulse-pounding soundtrack never fails to elevate the material on camera and makes the duel of warriors we’re witnessing feel pretty idyllically epic. But please, don’t take my word for it!
The film’s middle section slows down a bit to take the audience on a flashback to the sins of Sultan’s past and does perhaps stay here longer than is necessary for the story it’s telling. We all love the old “Man with everything loses it all to learn about humility” story, and the tragedy of our hero’s past is exactly why we’re rooting for his return in the first place. But “Sultan” lingers in this section of the film perhaps ten minutes longer than is necessary for us to get the point of how much success goes to his head once he becomes the king of Indian wrestlers.
Fortunately, the film doesn’t lose a huge amount of steam here and the training montage for Sultan’s battle royale gets our blood pumping for the finale in the MMA cage, with the forethought to make clear that Sultan is a grappling specialist with mostly rudimentary skills in striking. How about that? It’s actually a point of praise in a martial arts film that the hero’s kicks are stiff and awkward a la George “Iceman” Chambers in “Undisputed 2”!
It goes without saying that Sultan’s best matches in the tournament and quite possibly in the entire film – save perhaps for the opening wrestling match – are against Marrese Crump and Marko Zaror. In the few lines of dialogue he’s given, it’s pretty clear that Marrese’s character is at a far greater level of narcissism than Sultan ever reached, but delivering the butt-whopping he’s asking for is much easier said than done!
As in “Tom Yum Goong 2”, Marrese is swift and extraordinarily versatile, making transitions from Capoeira kicks and somersaults to Brazilian Jiu-jitsu chokes with the kind of matter-of-fact ease that most of us invoke in the act of blinking. Marko isn’t given that same degree of sleaze-bag villainy, which could qualify as a minor tragedy considering how well he delivered that in “Undisputed 3”. He nevertheless gives Sultan an excellent final opponent with a notable blend of aerial kicks and grappling maneuvers as Marrese, once again defying belief that a man of his size can pull these sorts of techniques off! How fitting, then, that he should be Sultan’s final opponent, both of them being fighters who defy the expectations of others.
A “Rocky”-esque story of a former champion fighting his way back to the top, “Sultan” has the right set of ground story moves to deliver a winning suplex. It occasionally gets into clichéd waters and it’s a tad longer than what its aspirations call for, but lovers of glorious close-lining, body-slamming combat will walk away happy campers. It’s unfortunate the script couldn’t find a way to justify Marko and Marrese squaring off at some point, but oh well, maybe in “Sultan 2”!
- Vlad Rimburg and Emmanuel Manzanares assisted with stunt co-ordination for the film, which they also did in 2015’s Bollywood MMA drama “Brothers”. They also both appeared in the 2015 indie martial arts comedy “Unlucky Stars” alongside Dennis Ruel, who did pre-viz work for this film.
- The film is the fourth-highest grossing Bollywood movie of all time.
- One of Sultan’s opponents in the film is real-life MMA fighter Tyron Woodley. On July 30th, 2016, just 24 days after “Sultan” was released, Woodley knocked out Robbie Lawler at UFC 201 in Atlanta, Georgia, making him the current UFC Welterweight champion.