Thursday, April 04, 2024

Dev Patel’s Monkey Man

He is an underground fighter, whose masked persona is inspired by Hanuman. He encounters a woman named Sita in his quest for vengeance, but this is not the Ramayana. This is old school retribution at its most brutal. Some of the most powerful men in India are responsible for his mother’s death, so now they are going to pay in Dev Patel’s Monkey Man, which opens tomorrow in theaters.

We never really catch the “Kid’s” name, but he takes the alias of “Bobby” while working in the kitchen of the elite private club affiliated with his enemies. As a boy, he watched helplessly as the future police chief killed his mother, as part of an operation to clear their community off land coveted by a politically connected cult. Their (maybe not so vaguely) Modi-sounding nationalist party is on the verge of winning the election, but “Bobby” might not even be aware of politics. He is hatching a plan to make Chief Rana pay. Still, he cannot help noticed Sita, one of the club’s hostesses, whose soul has not been fully corrupted yet.

Bobby’s plan is not great, but he intends to compensate with the red-hot intensity of his rage. He might need a little more than that, but he might find it during a training montage. Sure, we have seen them before, but not with Zakiir Hussain keeping rhythm as the character appropriately known simply as the “Tabla Maestro,” which indeed he is.

Hussain, a member of John McLaughlin’s Shakti, has appeared in films before, but they have mostly been classy Merchant-Ivory productions, like
Heat and Dust. In contrast, Monkey Man is about as bloody and seamy as a movie can possibly get. It is not for the squeamish. This is a straight-up payback thriller, but it is getting marketed for horror audiences, partly because it is produced by Jordan Peele and partly because it is so unapologetically violent.

Directing himself, Patel has sort of made a Mr. Hyde companion to his Dr. Jekyll-ish breakout film,
Slumdog Millionaire. Bobby, or whoever he is, is another slum kid, but he has very different goals in life.

Basically, there are two extended fight scenes, but they probably represent at least sixty percent of the film. In terms of their grittiness and grunginess, they are very much akin to those in Xavier Gens’
Mayhem. Clearly, Patel trained like a madman. He is not a huge guy, but he has that wiry, ultra-cut physique that makes his relentlessness believable. The movie is his show entirely, but Sharlto Copley is also fun to watch chewing the scenery as the sleazy underground fight empresario, Tiger.

Cinematographer Sharone Meir soaks up all the grime, but somehow the neon-lit street scenes are weirdly beautiful.
Monkey Man probably feels like it lands more political in India, but in America most of the partisan-ideological baggage will be “lost in translation,” so to speak. It is just as well, because there is something rather poetic about Monkey Man’s stripped-down primal fury. Recommended for fans of existential action cinema, Monkey Man opens in theaters tomorrow (4/5), including the AMC Lincoln Square.