Monkey Man review — Dev Patel delivers a sweaty, genre-bending thriller

Directed by Dev Patel | Written by Patel, Paul Angunawela, and John Collee | 121 min | ▲▲▲△△

Who knew that Dev Patel had these chops as a filmmaker? I’m usually pretty skeptical when a star steps behind the camera and then puts themselves in the lead role of their first feature, but you can’t deny the ambition on display or what he does right out of the gate — the energy of this thing could melt icecaps.

Patel is the unnamed hero, a bareknuckle brawler in the bowels of an Indian city, Yatana — fictional, but it sure looks like Mumbai — a grimy pit with Sharlto Copley in charge, his rizz set at full sleaze. This is a city with a serious disparity between rich and poor, where faith leaders/corporate kings rise to prominence thanks to a deeply corrupt system. At first breath it comes off as a slow-boil gritty revenge thriller or noir, with an explicit nod to John Wick early on but none of the explosive action. Not right away, anyway.

Desperate for money, our hero — haunted by dreams of childhood and badly scarred palms, souvenirs of major trauma — gets a job in a club where the hardass lady in charge of things, Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar), also runs the sex workers. Our guy gets friendly with another employee, Alphonso (Pitobash) and one of the ladies, Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala).

The film plays coy with the details of his motivations until late in the story, but Patel’s intensity, both physical and emotional, is something to see. We learn he’s looking for the coldest revenge on a dirty cop, Rana (Sikandar Kher), but he’s not entirely prepared for the hell he’s about to enter. His spirit has been broken, and he needs psychedelic healing from a colony of transexuals living in a temple.

Yep, you read that right. Monkey Man is a movie with a lot on its mind. We get commentary on the existing social order in India — I gather due to its use of controversial imagery the film has yet to find distribution in that country — and criticism of corporate and government malfeasance as well as sexual and religious freedom. Patel’s use of Hindu symbolism — his character is inspired by monkey god legends his mother told him as a youth — went over my head, but the imagery is never less than impressive.

The picture has one of the best sound designs I’ve heard in yonks, an unearthly melding of Jed Kurzel’s score (shadows of Harold Faltermeyer’s Top Gun music), needle drops (“Roxanne” and “Rivers Of Babylon” are both used to, perhaps unintentionally, hilarious effect), and perfectly timed sound effects and tabla beats, this thing sounds fantastic. It also looks pretty great, too — Patel and his DP, Sharone Meir, do a great job with universe building. They’ve achieved a sweaty, bloody, pain-filled vision.

Does all of it make sense? Not even close, and you do end up wishing a few elements — suggestions of a romance, a subplot with a tiny dog — might’ve been hived off in editing to tighten things up.

But the real irony is that when it comes, the action winds up being the weakest link. Too often Patel and Meir shoot hand-to-hand combat in medium-to-close-up and hand-held. It’s not entirely incoherent — we’re not talking the warcrimes that are the Taken sequels — but it’s a few cuts below that major influence, Mr Wick, with far too many dizzying, rapid edits that take away from Patel’s physical grace.

But if you’re looking for something different in this arena, the movie is worth your time. With Monkey Man, Patel has staked his claim as a genuine action star and a director with ideas. And, let’s not forget a major gig in that field is still up for grabs. Maybe this is his audition.

About the author

flawintheiris

Carsten Knox is a massive, cheese-eating nerd. In the day he works as a journalist in Halifax, Nova Scotia. At night he stares out at the rain-slick streets, watches movies, and writes about what he's seeing.

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