Dev Patel first came to prominence with the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire, in which he played a young man from India who came up from the gutters to achieve fortune by winning a game show. And now that same Dev Patel makes his writing/producing/directing debut with Monkey Man, in which he plays a young man from India who came up from the gutters to slaughter the wealthy and powerful. He really has come full circle, going right back to where he’s started and yet going so far in the process.

The film opens with a fable of Hanuman, an Indian demigod who resembles an anthropomorphic ape. Long story short, Hanuman once tried to ascend to the heavens and the gods beat him down for his arrogance. That pretty well sets the tone for the film’s themes of the wealthy oppressing the poor and making damn sure the peasants keep their place.

Without going too deeply into details, Patel’s unnamed protagonist (only credited as “Kid” and referred to in the film by a number of aliases) was part of a poor Indian tribe that got displaced at the whim of wealthy assholes. After losing his home and watching his mother get murdered in front of him, our hero has devoted his entire life to getting revenge.

Part of that process involves getting work as a wrestling heel, complete with a monkey mask in homage to Hanuman. This job comes with the obvious advantages of getting money, learning how to fight, learning how to take ungodly torrents of pain and verbal abuse, etc. His other main advantage is his encyclopedic knowledge of India’s underground, with all manner of connections to sell him pretty much anything he wants or needs.

At first, our protagonist is only focused on climbing up the social ladder to get close to the wealthy and powerful assholes who were directly responsible for destroying his village. But then the halfway point comes, and a strange thing happens. By which I mean there’s a plot contrivance that’s thin enough to nearly break the whole damn movie. But more importantly, our hero learns that his mission is bigger than his own personal thirst for revenge.

On its face, the movie has a heavily religious bent, leaning particularly hard on Hindu deities and imagery. However, the Hindu lip service is primarily important as a metaphor for Indian culture. It’s a symbol of the history and cultural identity that’s increasingly swept away by capitalism, corruption, and so on. The downtrodden poor worship a higher purpose while the wealthy parasites only worship the almighty rupee.

Once the film goes deep into detailing this metaphor, our hero starts to realize that he’s not just out to avenge his own personal loss — he’s fighting on behalf of all the millions of poor downtrodden Indians getting exploited by this wicked upper class. On the one hand, I get how the character might’ve been blinded to everything other than his own personal pain — vendettas can do that to a person. On the other hand, given that he’s out to avenge an entire village (i.e. hundreds of his neighbors and family) who got murdered or displaced all at once, it doesn’t seem like it should be quite such a revelation that this conflict is so much bigger than he is.

As for the other characters, we’ve got Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala), the undercooked love interest who feels like she should’ve been much better developed than she actually was. We’ve also got Alphonso (Pitobash), a comic relief who can never quite make up his mind as to whether he should be a villain or a heroic sidekick or what the hell he’s even doing in this movie. Oh, and of course we’ve got Alpha (Vipin Sharma), the religious mentor who consistently shows up out of nowhere with no explanation whenever he’s needed.

Things are much more clear on the villainous side of things. Sharlto Copley chews scenery as a sleazy fight promoter. Ashwini Kalsekar chews scenery as Queenie, the madam of India’s most prestigious resort/brothel. Sikander Kher chews scenery as Rana, the crooked chief of police. Last but not least is Makrand Deshpande, chewing scenery as a charlatan guru who’s come to great wealth and political influence through exploiting his own people. A roster of clear two-dimensional hate sinks who exist to be chased down and killed by our lead character. All well and good for a revenge thriller.

The film was made and marketed as a straightforward action flick in the vein of John Wick (who’s explicitly name-dropped in the film, by the way). And the third act does indeed get brutal and bloody to an extent that would make 87North proud. Even so, while the action sequences owe a debt to David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, the rest of the film is much more reminiscent of the Safdie Brothers.

Reportedly, this movie went through an outright hellish production shoot (and it’s not like Patel would have any reason to tell that particular lie), and it shows in the end result. The whole movie has this rough-and-tumble look to it, like it was shot by a passerby who desperately tried to catch the action on a cell phone camera before the moment passed. To say nothing of the flashback sequences, most of which are deliberately made incomprehensible in the interest of foreshadowing; and the POV shots that demonstrate our hero getting the living daylights literally beaten out of him. It’s charming at first, as it fits the gritty street-level sensibility of the film. But (as with the Safdie Brothers), it became an obnoxious distraction over time.

Luckily, the third act comes together just in time to blend Patel’s outside-the-box mentality with coherent camerawork, all of which helps to make the climactic action scenes far more engaging. So there’s that.

Word has it that Dev Patel turned down quite a lot of other work to make this movie, and I expect that Monkey Man will be worth the sacrifice in the long run. As the lead actor, he’s a force of nature. As the director, he’s brought so many new ideas and approaches to the screen. As the producer, he deserves serious kudos for keeping a project on the rails and out the door through so many hardships. But as the writer, he needs to do better than this.

The plot gets perilously contrived in places, and too many supporting characters are either useless or underdeveloped. And while I appreciate Patel’s novel approach to cinematography and editing, there were too many times when the “panic attack” montages and hazy flashbacks got old. I can respect a filmmaker who wants to bring some pathos and culture to the genre, but there’s only so much that can be done to enhance such a dirt-simple genre as the revenge thriller.

The action is good enough and the Indian setting is unique enough that I can give the film a passing grade for that much. It’s a good movie, but not necessarily worth going out of your way for. I’m honestly more excited to see what Dev Patel does next now that he’s got this out of his system.


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