Sundeep Kishan and Lavanya Tripathi starrer A1 Express wants to say a lot of things and ask relevant questions about the state of sports beyond cricket. Why is it that so many sportspersons give up on their dreams? Who decides the worth and longevity of a player? The film delves into all these aspects, while highlighting corruption in sports, and how petty egos ruin people's careers. To make things worse, the players and their coach have to move heaven and earth to save their academy and also, their hockey ground from being taken over by a multinational company. It's an interesting setup and the drama too has a lot of potential, at least on paper. But then, it's riddled with so many issues that it doesn't compel you to immerse yourself in its world.
The film is a partial remake of Natpe Thunai, a Tamil film starring Hiphop Tamizha Adhi, and the Telugu version largely sticks to the original version. Set in Yanam, the story begins with a brief history of Chittibabu hockey stadium, which has seen its glory days back in the late 1940s. We are told that the stadium and the game of hockey has a lot of cultural importance in the region. This concept is used as a major conflict in the story, which sees many people, including the local team's hockey coach (Murali Sharma), Sandeep (Sundeep Kishan), Lavanya (Lavanya Tripathi), and others outdo themselves to save the stadium from being usurped by a corrupt politician (Rao Ramesh).
One of the biggest problems with A1 Express is how the scenes are staged and a lot of times, they just abruptly cut away to something else. The first half, in particular, feels terribly underwritten and there's hardly any sequence that takes us by surprise. Even the interval bang, which gives a glimpse of Sanju's past, is quite predictable. The motivations of the characters, barring that of the coach, aren't clear enough and evidently, director Dennis Jeevan saves his best for the second half of the story. But then, this doesn't create a sense of anticipation, despite all the drama and evil machinations unfolding in the backdrop.
The film does salvage itself to an extent, thanks to an emotional backstory, and both Priyadarshi and Rahul Ramakrishna shine in their respective roles. Sundeep Kishan's agony is best captured when the narrative focuses on his childhood friends, and how it changes his life after a point. However, the drama surrounding the game of hockey, and how the team prepares to surmount the obstacles lacks punch. Even when the characters deliver their lines, they are stripped of their emotional subtext, and even the big game feels shallow. Lavanya Tripathi too finds herself sidelined after a point.
Then, there's plenty of sermonising throughout A1 Express, ranging from the games which politicians play in the name of caste, region, and religion to the commercialisation of sports. But these observations are often used as a passing remark without delving into it. The film's narrative is like the game of hockey itself. You know where and what the goal is, and each player has his own role to play on the turf. But it always seems to be in a rush to get to that endpoint. In the process, it becomes a tad too lacklustre to root for the characters and their journeys. There's a dialogue in the film where Rao Ramesh says, "Every hockey coach feels like he's Shah Rukh Khan." He's referring to SRK's role in Chak De! India. But A1 Express is no Chak De! India, and it doesn't intend to either. It's a million-dollar question what it intends to accomplish because it has a lot of things to say but the journey itself isn't inspiring enough.