‘Monkey Man’ review: Dev Patel rebrands as an action hero


Dev Patel’s got something to say, but he’s going to let his fists do the talking. With his directorial debut, the wild revenge movie “Monkey Man,” the Oscar-nominated actor makes a bold statement with this one-two punch of a film that asserts himself as both an action star and a promising new genre voice.

Having achieved his fame in more serious dramas like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Lion,” Patel’s passion project is a big swing, and a big swerve for the actor. Luckily, it connects, landing with a satisfyingly bone-crunching intensity. And if this is intended as Patel’s calling card, he leaves the whole damn deck on the table.

“Monkey Man” is a love letter to East Asian martial arts movies and to Indian folklore and culture. The monkey in question is both Hanuman, the Hindu god of wisdom, courage and devotion, and the face of the dingy rubber mask that the “Kid” (Patel) dons for his lopsided underground boxing matches, which are announced by a delightfully slimy Sharlto Copley.

This is a revenge picture, so the Kid, who sometimes goes by the alias Bobby, must get his payback, driven by fiery blood-soaked memories and the sound of his mother whispering Hanuman’s legend in his ear. He wheedles his way into the kitchen of Kings, an upscale restaurant, and then alongside the in-house drug dealer, Alphonso (Bollywood star Pitobash), upstairs in the VIP club where corrupt cops and powerful politicians party with a harem of international escorts.

A man in a monkey mask awaits combat in the ring.

Dev Patel in the movie “Monkey Man.”

(Universal Pictures)

The Kid wants to get close to Chief Rana (Sikander Kher), a cruel police officer whose bloodied knuckles haunt his nightmares. But Rana is only part of the food chain of money and power in this unnamed city — there are far bigger predators to fight if he does manage to send murderous greetings from his dead mother.

This Kid’s got potential but he’s not quite finished yet and Patel turns “Monkey Man” into his coming-of-age story, mapping the fight scenes in tandem with his growth as a warrior. That’s part of what makes Patel’s direction of the film so fascinating — the action sequences at the end of the movie are so much slicker than the hectic, chaotic brawls in the first half, because the Kid is so much more skilled and confident. The style of the film evolves with our hero.

Working with cinematographer Sharone Meir (who most recently collaborated with the legendary John Woo on “Silent Night”), Patel favors lengthy takes in which the camera follows bodies in motion closely, looking up to catch a hit and then down to see the result. These shots get smoother as the film progresses and the climactic showdown in the VIP bar is a gorgeously fluid set piece, soundtracked to the churning guitars of Indian folk-metal band Bloodywood. Rhythm and musicality is a huge part of Patel’s action style, and he utilizes it for effects that are both comedic and sublime, such as in a training montage featuring the renowned tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain.

Patel also intersperses blink-and-you’ll-miss-them POV shots, further aligning us with the Kid’s experience and adding to the dizzying, hallucinatory effect of some of these fights. Every frame is wild and colorful, with lots of needle drops and an energy that is sometimes unwieldy. He dispenses with any restraint in “Monkey Man,” a film saturated with texture, music, spirituality and violence.

The screenplay, by Patel, Paul Angunawela and John Collee, is a bit formulaic and even hackneyed at times. The story is political but also politically muddled, imparting a vague warning about the hazards of worshiping false idols. Patel’s plot relies on sexual aggression toward women as a moral cheat sheet while also using the same exploitation as a cheeky visual backdrop — a trope that can often be a trap. “Monkey Man” is far more successful at exploring sexuality in the genre via a group of transgender women who teach the Kid how to harness his pain into power, led by an incredibly compelling Vipin Sharma as the wise Alpha.

But formula also serves Patel well, allowing him to experiment and present himself in a new way to audiences. With “Monkey Man,” Patel manages to pull it off and then some, signaling the arrival of an authentic filmmaker, effectively following a similar trajectory of one of the film’s producers, Jordan Peele, who made a similar statement with “Get Out.” Patel did it his way, forged his own path and we’ll never look at him in the same light again — and that’s a good thing.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘Monkey Man’

In English and Hindi with English subtitles

Rating: R, for strong bloody violence throughout, language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use

Running time: 2 hours, 2 minutes

Playing: In wide release Friday, April 5


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