In the opening shot of “Hotel Mumbai,” 10 unsmiling Islamo-fascists sit in a raft as it runs ashore on the coast of Mumbai on Nov. 26, 2008. They each carry a bulky backpack filled with lethal cargo—long guns, extra magazines, grenades—as hateful rhetoric from their ringleader, perverted from the Quran, pumps into their earbuds and onto the soundtrack, boosting their self-esteem like a jihadist version of a Norman Vincent Peale tape. They climb into different taxis, and within hours they will begin the deadliest reign of terror in modern Indian history, which would take the lives of 174 people in 12 locations over four days.
The stories to emerge from these events are legion, but first-time director Anthony Maras, taking inspiration from a 2009 documentary about the attacks, trains his narrative on the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, a gilded labyrinth of luxury that becomes its own character in the film. Like a Ludlum novel, or a season of “24,” the movie’s opening act inventories the villains and heroes, both boisterous and unsung, who will jigsaw into place just in time for the bombs to drop.
There’s Dev Patel as Arjun, harried family man and dedicated server in the hotel’s glittering restaurant, and Anupam Kher as Hemant Oberoi, the restaurant’s all-business head chef. Then there’s the guests: Zahra (Nazanin Boniadi), a member of British-Iranian royalty, who has checked into the Palace with her new baby and her wealthy American fiancée David (Armie Hammer, seeming to break a sweat onscreen for the first time ever) for a discreet wedding; and Vasili (Jason Isaacs), a Russian oligarch with plans for an evening of barely legal hedonism. An American tourist and his Asian-American wife are the next to arrive, in an atmosphere that increasingly assumes the air of the Titanic just before the iceberg.
The result is as bloody and horrible as you expect, but “Hotel Mumbai” is best when it observes the moments between the gunfire, liked when an ignorant and paranoid British tourist insists Zahra is “one of them” because the character speaks to her mother on the phone in Arabic. It takes an empathetic speech from Arjun—and Patel has the sensitive eyes and soothing demeanor to pull it off beautifully—to rewire her racism.
As a survival story of humans in perilous situations, “Hotel Mumbai” is nerve-jangling. Scenes of mortal suspense are knocked out like dominoes: Will the crying baby betray the presence of Zahra’s nanny, hiding in the closet from terrorists spitting distance away? Can David successfully hide behind a room-service cart in a cramped elevator door long enough for a pair of killers to miss him?
In the kitchen and back-of-the-house corridors, Hemant and Arjun selflessly put their guests before their own safety, leading them into a secret lounge area that won’t stay secret for long enough. Outside, on the panicked streets, the provincial police, unable to wait hours for proper forces from New Delhi, take action into their own hands, and at their own peril.
The situation resembles one into which Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal would be airdropped in a ‘90s movie to save the day, and that’s the problem: By borrowing the syntax of the average bullet-riddled actioner, Maras films an extraordinary event with all-too-familiar grammar and stock characters. It feels cheap and exploitative, with the occasional reek of white privilege, a la 2015’s “No Escape,” which tracked Owen Wilson and his family’s attempts to survive a violent uprising in their similarly posh hotel in an unnamed Southeast Asian country.
Must these foreign-set films always narrow their focus to Caucasian visitors? Is that really the only way to make American audiences relate? This attack was cause for a global mourning, regardless of how many people that look like Armie Hammer had to endure it. But with few exceptions, no Indians in “Hotel Mumbai” are written with any degree of depth. This movie, and this story, deserves a broader tapestry of compassion.
“Hotel Mumbai” opens Thursday in South Florida.