An enterprising superstar holds court in a thoroughly unimaginative Darbar.

In a story that’s been beaten to death, Aaditya Arunasalam (Rajnikanth) stars a ruthless police officer whose task is to make Mumbai clean of drugs. The opening sequences invoke a lot of déjà vu, not in the wittily inventive manner Petta did, but in a more resigned manner of having seen it all so many times and wondering if AR Murugadoss will surprise you with something new.

There is the obligatory hero introduction which is rather tepid, as Rajni slashes his way through an entire platoon of thugs, his characteristic hand gestures accompanied with whooshing effect, his purposeful stride, his manic laugh, and other clichés that are forcibly thrown in to serve as an ode to the enduring superstar.

Once director AR Murugadoss considers himself done with the fanservice checklist, the movie finds itself on surer footing, with some endearing father-daughter moments between Rajni and Nivetha Thomas, a fleeting romance angle with Nayanthara that somehow works against all odds, and Yogi Babu’s comic relief invoking a few chuckles. I particularly enjoyed the inventive manner in which Rajni gets the backing of Mumbai’s influential elite for executing his aggressive drug cleanup operation. The first half ends on a promising note before AR Murugadoss seems to run out of good ideas again in the second half.

A common theme in Murugadoss’ movies is that his protagonists don’t mind breaking a few laws themselves as long as justice is served. In Darbar, the director ramps this up by a few notches when a personal tragedy pushes Rajni into the dark side and his vengeful self embarks on a killing spree for much of the second half. The superstar is in swashbuckling form as “bad cop” Aaditya Arunasalam, but there is only so much even he can do. Sure, he can still lift weights and make us swoon like Abbas back in Padayappa, but even he cannot lift the movie from mediocrity after a thoroughly unimaginative mess of second half. While I was never sold with the concept of Vijay “connecting the dots” in Thuppakki, I found the police sleuthing in Darbar, particularly the pre-climax sequence to find the villain’s lair, laughably stupid.

Nivedha Thomas shines in her limited role and deserves praise for her heartbreaking performance in one noteworthy sequence. However, when the same scene is revisited later in the movie, you can’t help but notice a technical goof-up that brings to mind Vijayakanth’s hacking skills using Windows Media Player in Ramana (arguably Murugadoss’ best movie to date). Nayanthara, now a lady superstar herself, is back as the “superstar’s jodi”, but has to contend with measly screen time. Suneil Shetty is a far cry from the villain’s gallery of Murugadoss and Rajini’s movies. A supposedly dreaded drub lord, he is reduced to fisticuffs after he forgets to count the bullets in his gun.

While Anirudh’s BGM score is as befitting a Rajnikanth movie, the songs are a massive letdown. Anirudh uses the iconic Annamalai superstar theme to good effect, often in a bid to elevate a scene to more than what it really is (not unlike numerous James Bond and Mission Impossible movies). Darbar largely works in parts, but never seems to have enough firepower to be considered a movie worthy of the much anticipated Rajini-Murugadoss combo.