Movie Review: Dev Patel's bloody political allegory ‘Monkey Man’    

In recent years, has there been a more gratifying actor to watch mature? The tiny, conscientious “Slumdog Millionaire” youngster has evolved into a fierce, sensitive leading man. In Patel's new picture, “Monkey Man,” viewers who missed “Lion,” “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” or “The Green Knight” may be surprised by the change.  

Like “Slumdog Millionaire,” it is set in Mumbai and fable-like. However, tone and texture are very different. Patel, who directed and co-wrote “Monkey Man,” celebrates his debut with blood and gore. He kicks so hard in this movie—he punches a punch—that you wonder if the quest for the new James Bond should be diverted.  

“Monkey Man,” produced by Jordan Peele, is looking for grittier martial-arts action, more like Bruce Lee or Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy”—wild, energetic locations where martial-arts action turns mythic and feverish. In its best moments, “Monkey Man” honors that tradition. But the film consistently shows Patel's growing force and persistence as a performer.  

The first 30 minutes of "Monkey Man" are intense. Kid, played by Patel, battles in an underground boxing arena wearing a gorilla mask. His head, in that mask, hits the canvas forcefully in our first image. Sharlto Copley's ring leader preside over these sadistic scenes, as do Kid's attempts to move closer to the high-rise King's Club's corrupt power center. A mysterious, single-minded individual driven by retribution, we don't know his obsession's cause.  

We watch with curiosity as he starts as a dishwasher for manager Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar) and then becomes a waitress to go to the penthouse. His attention is on police chief Rana (Sikandar Kher), and their terrible first encounter is a fast-paced edit. It fails, sending Kid tumbling down the structure and beyond. The ax-wielding lunatic enters the prostitution den from the frying pan.

While “Monkey Man” is thrillingly enigmatic at initially, it becomes too exposition-heavy. To its credit, the film has other thoughts. In the Hindu epic poem “Ramayana,” Hanuman confuses the sun for a mango and loses his powers.

“Monkey Man” is set in a filthy, contemporary Mumbai (officially Yatana), contrasted with Hanuman's narrative. Infiltrating the syndicate Kid finds a religious leader (Makarand Deshpande). “Monkey Man,” which Netflix dropped before Peele and Universal snatched it up, is political in its dramatized depiction of Modi-led India.  

Although Kid recovers with the help of the sage Alpha (Vipin Sharma) and a gang of transgender women in hiding, these elements slowly boil over. “Monkey Man” has cutaways to TV news coverage (some from real demonstrations) and frequent flashbacks to Kid's boyhood land grab, in which his mother Neela (Adithi Kalkunte) was brutally murdered.  

The real-world metaphors and Hindu settings of “Monkey Man” enhance the picture but aren't always well-integrated. It references “John Wick,” too. More successful is its frenzied combat choreography up to a brutal third-act finale fueled by class unrest.  

“Monkey Man” is Patel's strong directorial debut despite its incongruities. Most importantly, he gives a film about brutality a captivating gravity. The Motion Picture Association rates Universal Pictures' "Monkey Man" R for strong bloody violence, profanity, sexual content/nudity, and drug usage. Runtime: 121 minutes. Three stars out of four.  

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