Masked men enter a house, commit a heinous crime, and escape. This is what a screenwriter would call the "inciting incident" of Kannur Squad. But by this point, the film has already been incited. We have already seen George (Mammootty) and the rest of his squad working on another case. We have already seen them pursue one set of criminals, stumble on another crime, and follow up clues. This long-ish prelude helps us learn something about each member of the Kannur squad, and it also tells us how meticulous they are. Would the film have still worked without this prelude? Probably, yes. But it's nice to get two cases for the price of one movie. And it's nicer to get a psychological profile of these policemen, who say: "We are not just human beings. We are cops." They cannot, they will not be swayed by emotion, however valid that emotion is.
Kannur Squad, directed by Roby Varghese Raj, is a solid procedural – as opposed to a great one like Kuttavum Shikashayum. But the writers Muhammed Shafi and Rony David give a masterclass on how to craft a star vehicle that pleases fans of the star while also not making him a superhero. George needs another cop's help in order to break down a wall. But he also gets his "mass" moments, the best of which involves a finger. These moments aren't standalone bits. They are woven into the narrative. Even the reference to 'Kalyana thenila' is nicely done. After all, this Tamil hit is hardly the first Mammootty song that comes to mind in the context of a Malayalam Mammootty movie. And the man is magnificent, expertly straddling the line between slo-mo walks and intense showdowns with his seniors.
After the prelude, we get the incident with the masked men. The brutality is hard to watch, especially when a father is dragged away like a corpse while another member of the family is being brutalised. George's team is put on the case. The chase takes them from Kasaragod to Uttar Pradesh and beyond. But because they are not of a particular pay grade, flights cannot be sanctioned for their travel. It's a beautiful screenplay touch that tells us a couple of things. One: our police have to battle many odds. Imagine having to spend days on the road, driving, when the criminals are getting farther and farther away. No wonder George tells his team that he has spent more time with them in this van than at home with his family.
Who is his family? While the other cops are fleshed out with mothers and daughters, George's personal life remains a mystery. It works. What also works is that none of these cops is seen with family. The interaction with family is always through a phone call or some such thing. These cops are only seen with each other. This sharp sense of "isolation" helps greatly to de-sentimentalise the narrative. Anyway, let's return to the second thing about the lack of flight permission. The road trip allows the writers to put these cops in the middle of constant danger, like in a superb action stretch in a north Indian village that keeps going on and on, even when you think it's all over. There's a third payoff to the lack of flight permission. Jayan (an excellent Rony David) has been accused of accepting a bribe, and when he says that they can pool in money for flights even if the supervisors don't sanction anything, it comes to be seen as proof that he did accept the bribe for selfish reasons. Another cop loses no time in pointing this out.
There is a reason Jayan did what he did. There is a reason the masked men did what they did. Kannur Squad shows us that good, thoughtful writing can exist in hero-centric mainstream filmmaking. And also that small, human touches aren't out of place in such a movie. Kishore plays a senior officer whose decency is so thoroughly established that his single explosion to George makes us feel his frustration. It's almost like he's saying: "If I am doomed to be part of this heartless State machinery, I might as well behave like a heartless robot." The bits where the police are praised don't come off as simple heartstring-tugging. At the end of this film, they feel earned. Mammootty may be the star, but like with the police, Kannur Squad is pure teamwork. Every single department pitches in, and the result is thoroughly satisfying.