With a premise that is as simple or as complex as you’d like it to be, Monkey Man anoints Dev Patel as a new action director and star. Filmed on location in Mumbai and Indonesia in the height of the COVID pandemic and saved from a Netflix direct-to-streaming deal by Jordan Peele and Universal, this film about reinvention bursts with the same frenetic energy of a Danny Boyle or John Woo picture, with Patel––co-writer, director, star, and sometimes camera operator––throwing everything he has at the screen, and then some.

The plot, on one level, is a simple revenge tale unfolding for reasons revealed at the narrative’s midpoint. Inspired by the Hindu myth of Hanuman (who is half-man, half-monkey) Patel’s unnamed Kid embraces this persona in wrestling matches that have left him battle-tested before he undergoes a profound spiritual awakening. The training comes in handy when he plots his big moment of revenge on the “haves” who are threatening the have-nots. In a complex series of exchanges he orchestrates the stealing of a wallet belonging to Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar), the proprietor of Kings, an exclusive upscale club where politicians and businessmen get together to indulge in drugs, women, fine alcohol, and caviar. Marching into her office, Patel’s Kid makes his case for a job rather than reward money, showing her his bleach-burned hands and pledging to take any position. Starting in the kitchen, he eventually works his way up. Soon he’s recognized by a manager (Pitobash) with a plan of his own and placed on the floor in a serving role.

His rage continues to boil over and eventually, in defense of a pretty party hostess, he switches a patron’s vial of cocaine for powered bleach, leading to an unhinged fight sequence in a men’s room and an eventual city-wide chase. Kid’s fury is directed towards one political party and class that seem to be regulars at VIP clubs like Kings. Let the film be a cautionary tale to those heading the Mumbai SoHo House.

The story’s politics are a little on-the-nose without much context or nuance beyond a few reports on the nightly news. Where the film builds emotion is through the atonement process (a standard step in the hero’s-journey screenwriting paradigm) when Kid essentially transforms. Eventually, all of the elements for his rage come together with an explanation regarding the death of his beloved abused mother and the destruction of lands inhabited by the nation’s poorest.

While this journey is somewhat short on depth, it compensates in the sheer amount of ass-kicking, biting, and bloodshed as Kid’s hellbent on executing his plot and, ultimately, the film’s villain. What the script by Paul Angunawela, John Collee, and Patel (from his own story) lacks in narrative texture it supersedes in visual approach. The dramatic passages and action sequences are masterfully composed by Patel in collaboration with his cinematographer Sharone Meir (Whiplash, Silent Night) and production designer Pawas Sawatchaiyamet (Last Life in the Universe), often capturing the action in a visceral handheld style that recalls Patel’s breakout film Slumdog Millionaire or Christopher Doyle’s collaborations with Wong Kar-wai.

Indeed, Monkey Man is an exciting film that relies heavily on those visuals and the performances to carry a script that could use a beefier plot. That, of course, could also present problems and complications that might slow a film both brisk and a little too thin at just under two hours. Credit is due to Patel’s editors Dávid Jancsó and Tim Murrell for keeping action scenes tight and fast.

Minor quibbles aside, Patel, like John Krasinski, has jumped from likable rising star to capable director in a film so visually rich and innovative that its premiere at SXSW scored a rare standing ovation for the festival. Filmed before RRR became a crossover cultural hit, Monkey Man is somewhat revolutionary in such regard: a major studio is giving a wide release to a film that, on paper, may not suggest a U.S. audience. As with other global films proving successful, here’s hoping Patel’s debut helps rethink that antiquated business notion. It would not surprise me if Patel is given the chance to break more barriers at a larger scale within the studio system in coming years.

Monkey Man premiered at SXSW 2024 and opens on April 5.

Grade: B

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