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Patel pulls no punches in directorial debut ‘Monkey Man’

Katie Walsh – Tribune News Service (TNS)

Dev Patel’s got something to say, but he’s going to let his fists do the talking. With his directorial debut, the wild action revenge flick “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 promising genre director.

Having achieved his fame in more serious dramas like “Slumdog Millionaire” and “Lion,” Patel’s passion project “Monkey Man” is a big swing, and a big swerve for the actor. Luckily, it connects, landing with a satisfyingly bone-crunching intensity. And if the movie 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, strength, courage, devotion and self-discipline, and it is also the face of the dingy rubber mask that the Kid (Patel) dons for his underground boxing matches, which are announced by a delightfully slimy Sharlto Copley.

This is a revenge picture, and so the Kid, who sometimes goes by the alias “Bobby,” must get revenge, driven by his 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 (Pitobash), upstairs into the VIP club, where corrupt cops and powerful politicians party with a harem of international escorts.

The Kid wants to get close to Chief Rana (Sikandar 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 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 alongside 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 in tandem with our hero.

Working with cinematographer Sharone Meir (who most recently worked with the legendary John Woo on “Silent Night”), Patel favors long takes where the camera follows bodies in motion closely, looking up to catch a hit, and then down to see the result. These long takes with concealed cuts 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 effect both comedic and sublime, such as in a training montage featuring legendary tabla player Zakir Hussain.

Patel also frequently 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 a hectic, chaotic energy that is sometimes unwieldy. He dispenses with any restraint in “Monkey Man,” a film stuffed and saturated with color, texture, music, spirituality and violence.

The screenplay, by Patel, Paul Angunawela and John Collee (story by Patel), 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 worshipping false idols. The story relies on sexual violence against woman as a good/evil cheat sheet while also using the very same sexual exploitation as a cheeky visual backdrop — a trope that can often be a trap. Patel 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, allowing him to experiment aesthetically and present himself in a new way to audiences. It’s also easy to forgive any messiness or missteps in the first half when he nails the third act with such style and vigor. With “Monkey Man,” Patel manages to pull it off and then some, signaling himself as an actor and filmmaker who should and will be seen differently, effectively following a similar trajectory to 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.



(In English and Hindi with English subtitles)

3 stars (out of 4)

MPA rating: R (for strong bloody violence throughout, rape, language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use)

Running time: 2:02

How to watch: In theaters Friday


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