Movie Review; Monkey Man.

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( (***1/2) 

“Every day, I’ve prayed for a way to protect the weak.”

Hanuman, the Monkey God, is an ancient Hindu deity whose mythology includes heroism, strength, intelligence, love and compassion for the less fortunate. Sometimes his spirit is represented in a semidivine monkey-like form. It’s an essence that drives actor turned writer/director Dev Patel’s (Slumdog Millionaire) very impressive and kinetic first film. A riveting tale of revenge.

Movie Review; Monkey Man.

Opening scenes in a city in India depict a rowdy underground fight club. Patel, who collaborated with cinematographer Sharone Meir, slides the camera around the bottom of the boxing ring pulling you into the grunge. Quick edits (Joe Galdo, Dávid Jancsó, Tim Murrell) catch short glimpses of riled up spectators. A driving musical score (Jed Kurzel) and a wicked playlist hype the proceedings as a dark mustard colored hue permeates the room (art director Ahmad Zulkarnaen). What goes on here shouldn’t go on.

Inside the ring, mixed martial arts pugilists of the lowest order, kick, punch and body slam. Tiger (Sharlto Copley), the white ring announcer, bellows out the fighters’ names to all the brown faces. Most won’t remember the first combatant. But they can’t miss the second one. He’s wearing a gorilla mask, getting walloped and crushed. The crowd is in a frenzy as he face-plants in the mat. Behind closed doors, it’s a sham. The broken fighter goes by the moniker Monkey Man, but his real name is Kid (Patel). He’s paid to be beaten to a pulp. Paid to lose.

This intriguing setup shows the gutter life the protagonist lives. But it’s a façade. Kid is on a mission, and for the longest time the deft script, by Patel, Paul Angunawela and John Collee (Hotel Mumbai), doesn’t reveal why. He cons his way into working at the exclusive Kings Club, a swank nightclub/whorehouse run by the ruthless Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar). She warns the young interloper, her new dishwasher: “Anyone who talks outside this place—it doesn’t work out well for them.” Cleaning plates isn’t Kid’s goal, as he befriends the short lacky Alphonso (Pitobash) and flirts with Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala), a sought-after escort. He’s focused on a patron. The corrupt police chief Rana (Sikandar Kher), who supports Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), a nationalist party candidate who victimizes the poor. Why? Why is Kid in the hunt?

As a director, greatly aided by fight choreographer Brahim Chab, Patel exhibits a style similar to director extraordinaire Chad Stahelski (John Wick: Chapter 4). The fight scenes are hectic, balletic and monstrously violent. But this director’s theme of righteous revenge against those who wronged many sets this film apart. Add in the deeply emotional backstory of Kid being tormented and traumatized by his mother’s (Adithi Kalkunte) death, and the depth of the main character is well beyond that of the average action hero. Toss in a subplot about unlikely saviors, the mystical third-gender tribe known as the hijra, run by Alpha (Vipin Sharma), and the innovative plotting makes your head spin. The pious Alpha tries to help Kid lighten his burden: “Voices inside your head?” Kid: “Just one. It’s been screaming my whole life!”

Lots of things to marvel at. Fights, otherworldly elements, romance, eclectic characters. Crazy chase scenes with Kid and Alphonso as they’re pursued by cops and bad guys. Careening down streets and back alleys in a motorized, turbo-charged rickshaw affectionately named Nicki (after Nicki Minaj. Big bumper. Nice headlights). This cheeky plot device is symbolic of the filmmakers’ inventive nature. A steady forward momentum only abates in two scenes:

1.) When Kid’s backstory is revealed.

2.) Kid’s comeback match. Lots of smart decisions, are made, with only a few lapses. E.g., if Kid is being punched bloody unmercifully at night, why doesn’t his face reflect the bruises and wounds the next day?

Every member of the cast is brilliant. The venomously evil Queen benefits from Kalsekar’s menacing sneer. Kher’s approach to the antagonist, hunted down by a child who’s become a man, is far more subtle and twice as deadly. Pitobash provides comic appeal. Vipin Sharma’s reverent, fatherly interpretation of Alpha is touching beyond words. And Patel has miraculously blossomed from a natural, dramatic and comic actor into a daredevil. It’s a performance so strong, cool and nimble Patel could be the next James Bond. Or maybe he’ll follow in the footsteps of Takeshi “Beat” Kitano, a comedian/actor turned director who blazed a path with his yakuza crime films. All is possible, since Monkey Man is one hell of an audition tape.

Over-the-top violence is rarely this much fun. First time directors are rarely this skillful. The characters and themes that hold abusive leaders responsible for their misdeeds, make this Indian parable a standout—on all levels. The adrenaline energy is real. Passion compounds everything. Action fans will be thrilled and adult audiences too by the gobs of raw power.

A vengeful tale. Volatile and unpredictable. A lone soldier, joined by the most unlikely army of soul savers, is out for blood. Be warned. Those who do evil face Hanuman’s wrath. A rage embodied in earthly forms. This time in a Kid wearing a monkey mask.


Written by Dwight Brown

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