SHOOT ON SIGHTR
New York City had Sean Bell and Michael Stewart, innocent black men killed by New York City police—death by stereotype, African-American men at the wrong time and place. Count the number of innocent white or Asian men gunned down by the NYPD, and you’d have to concede that these tragedies aren’t simple accidents; they’re accidents fueled by cultural assumptions and fear.
London had its own version of Bell and Stewart in the July 7, 2005, killing of Jean Charles de Menezes, a Brazilian-born electrician shot dead in a London Underground station by Metropolitan Police in the wake of four attempted terrorist bombings the previous day. The police subsequently lied or, to be generous, misspoke about the innocent man’s clothing and behavior and their own actions, until eyewitnesses and journalists caused them to retract their statements. Then the police and government closed ranks, and that was that.
Former exploitation director Jag Mundhra, born in India but working primarily in the U.S. and England, adapted the de Menezes case into this high-minded crime drama. Here the victim is a young Muslim guilty of having his iPod turned up too loudly to hear police. How earnest is the treatment by director Mundhra and African-American screenwriter Carl Austin? The film’s tagline is, “Is it a crime to be Muslim?”
In nicely straightforward. albeit telefilm-like fashion, the story finds the Metropolitan police assigning a Muslim officer, Commander Tariq Ali (the impressive and charismatic Naseeruddin Shah), to head the investigation when a suspected terrorist, Baqir Hassan (Avtar Kaul), is killed by police on a London tube platform. Ali is a thoroughly Westernized cop’s cop married to a Caucasian (Greta Scacchi), and while he knows that his superior (Brian Cox) is using his ethnicity to cool public tempers in the wake of the controversial shooting, Ali is a police officer first and a devout Muslim second.
Of course, the more Ali investigates, the clearer it becomes that law-abiding student Hassan was shot without good reason, and soon the anti-Muslim racism that led to Hassan’s death ripples into Ali’s own life via fellow detectives Harry Marber (Ralph Ineson) and John Shepherd (Stephen Greif). And right on cue, a nephew (Mikaal Zulfiqar) who lives with Ali and his family becomes radicalized by a fundamentalist imam (Om Puri) who was—wait for it!—an old friend of Ali’s from childhood.
The story unspools in a less didactic manner than this précis sounds, though not by much. Handsomely shot, the film strives to be multifaceted without quite reaching the moral and ethical complexities it tries to grasp. Shoot on Sight—the title refers to a contentious, post-9/11 British law-enforcement policy—doesn’t make pulses pound in the tradition of a big Hollywood police thriller, focusing instead on the human story. On the other hand, a little bombast might have enlivened this talky, well-meaning melodrama financed and distributed by New York Hindi multimillionaire Aron Govil, whose pulse may not pound but whose heart is in the right place.