Monkey Man sets up Dev Patel as an action star — and maybe the anti-Bond

Dev Patel looks great beating people up in a suit. In the moments before he springs into action in Monkey Man, his tall, elegant frame looms threateningly, limbs hanging loose and ready, eyes glowering under twisted locks of black hair. When he strikes, it’s with whipcrack fluidity and control, but also emotional conviction — there’s a plausible desperation or rage to the way he moves.

Patel is one of the actors most frequently fancast as James Bond, so it’s very exciting to watch this taekwondo black belt flex his action-star muscles in Monkey Man, a feverish revenge movie set in a fictionalized India that also marks his directorial debut. The movie could easily be seen as an audition tape; now we know he can summon the brutal edge as well as the smoldering looks. On the other hand, the movie announces a restless filmmaker who might not be content to spend the next 15 years toiling in the franchise mines, even the most luxuriously appointed ones. Patel’s clearly got pictures in his head and things on his mind.

That Monkey Man would be stylish and brutal was clear from the trailer. What might be more surprising is how slow and serious it is. The plotting is spare and simple, but takes a full two hours to unspool. Between bursts of intense hand-to-hand action, the film takes its time soaking in richly colored, grimy imagery and simmering in rage at India’s inequality, discrimination, and corruption.

Patel plays Kid, an anonymous loner in a Mumbai-style city who ekes out a meager living brawling in an underground fight club run by an extremely disreputable Sharlto Copley. Wearing an ape mask and going by the moniker Monkey Man, Kid throws fights and soaks up punishment. But when he scores a job working in the kitchen of a VIP club catering to the city’s elite, it’s not just to escape the beatings. He’s trying to get close to vicious police chief Rana (Sikandar Kher), a regular at the club who, we learn through fragmentary flashbacks, wiped out Kid’s childhood village.

As a setup for a revenge action movie, this is classical to the point of being rudimentary, and Patel — who wrote the story and co-wrote the screenplay with Paul Angunawela and John Collee — doesn’t do a lot to embellish it. Although the movie holds back on the full details of Kid’s motivation until the final act, they’re as clear as a bell from the start, and none of the story beats will surprise an action-movie-literate audience.

Image: Universal Pictures

After Kid’s first assault at the club goes awry, he is hidden and nursed back to health by a secret hijra community of transgender women led by the guru Alpha (Vipin Sharma). There, he is reborn through the familiar media of suffering, psychedelic flashbacks, and a training montage — a particularly memorable one in this case, with Patel pounding on a sack of flour to the hypnotic rhythms of tabla played by the great Indian classical musician Zakir Hussain. Kid assumes a new, quasi-spiritual persona inspired by the Hindu monkey-god Hanuman, and heads back into the city to get his revenge.

Considering the bare bones it’s built from, Monkey Man is awkwardly structured and can be slow and fussy. Patel is sometimes less concerned with keeping this action movie’s motor running than he is with building out its impressively sweaty atmosphere and constructing a political critique that’s earnest, if a bit unfocused. Rana, the evil chief of police, works as muscle for a phony spiritual leader called Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), who is throwing his weight behind a populist Hindu political party that is stirring up discrimination against Muslims and other oppressed groups. This is an unsubtle dig at the current nationalist Indian regime led by prime minister Narendra Modi. The movie also gestures at the injustices of India’s centuries-old caste system without quite addressing it head-on; in this fictional city in an alternate-universe India, some real-world concepts can be called out by name, and some can’t.

Characters wearing masks and traditional dress at a street party hold their arms up in a pattern like the Hindu goddess Shiva in Monkey Man Image: Universal Pictures

Patel seems dead serious about his themes but also slightly nervous about them, perhaps because of their political sensitivity in India — Modi’s government is increasingly censorious, which might have been behind Netflix’s decision to drop Monkey Man — or perhaps due to an awareness of his own status as an outsider telling an Indian story (he was born and grew up in London). In fascinating essays at IGN and Time, critic Siddhant Adlakha has argued that Patel’s approach is somewhat naive and contradictory. But Patel would hardly be the first filmmaker to get tripped up when trying to use the revenge movie format, with its inherent reactionary conservatism, for progressive ends.

When Monkey Man finally shifts into gear for its action scenes, there’s a clearer vision at work — though perhaps “clear” isn’t the word for it. Patel, working with fight choreographer Brahim Chab and cinematographer Sharone Meir (Whiplash), shoots the fights up close and personal with a frenetic handheld camera that judders and whip-pans with the force of every blow, and deftly stitches these shots together into head-spinning, unbroken runs of movement. Influenced by Korean, Indonesian, and Bollywood action movies, what the style sometimes lacks in clarity it makes up in ferocity and impact. The desperation of Kid’s first bathroom battle with Rana is brilliantly conveyed (Sher is fantastic in an old-school heavy role), and the extended climax is intermittently stunning, although the editing sometimes struggles to maintain focus when things get busy.

A lack of focus is the main issue with Monkey Man across the board; you can imagine a version of this movie that’s shorter, a little cheesier maybe, and more fun to watch. But this elevated action potboiler doesn’t suffer from this flaw as much as a film in its genre usually would. That’s thanks to Patel’s sincerity and style — the cathartic charge and rich visual texture he brings to what is essentially a movie about punching. In a way, Monkey Man’s lack of composure is the point, and after it’s over, it’s easy to see Patel as an action star, but hard to picture him slipping into the role of a smooth agent of the colonial order. Maybe Bond’s not what he should be doing after all.

Monkey Man opens in theaters on April 5.

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