Director: Dev Patel Screenwriter: Dev Patel, Paul Angunawela, John Collee Cast: Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley, Pitobash, Sobhita Dhulipala, Sikandar Kher, Vipin Sharma, Ashwini Kalsekar, Adithi Kalkunte, Makarand Deshpande Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 121 min. MPAA: R

Monkey Man is bold because it has the guts to reference John Wick in passing. Sure, Dev Patel’s action extravaganza may gain comparisons for the mere mention and gritty abundance of fight scenes. Thankfully, though, Patel’s directorial debut is anything but derivative. This action film has grit, guts, and a deeply engaging tale of revenge and corruption.

Patel plays a nameless man (sometimes called Kid, sometimes called Bobby, as he adopted it from a brand of bleach) who wants to get revenge on his murdered mother. As a skilled fighter, he makes his money taking dives and bleeding as the masked monkey fighter of an underground wrestling game. With the monkey identity reflecting Indian myths told to him in childhood, the man is desperate to get back at the law enforcement official, Rana (Sikandar Kher), who slaughtered his village. He slowly works his way up through the ranks of a high-class establishment for the rich and corrupt. He climbs the employment ladder slowly as he readies his body for the ultimate fight, finding allies as he encounters hordes of corrupt cops and vicious henchmen.

It can’t overstated just how vocal this film gets in its representation of India and its condemnation of its societal divide. Monkey Man isn’t just encountering some generic crime boss or one corrupt official who needs to be outed. He’s fighting a war against an extorting wrestling manager (Sharlto Copley), a conniving hustler of women (Ashwini Kalsekar), and a conspiring guru, Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), who pleads for peace but conceals weapons in his padukas. Frequently, the film will cut to the despair and crimes of survival within the darker corners of an Indian city. Further venturing out of the background and into the foreground is an election that only mounts political tensions and discrimination. This film has an eerie level of relatable intensity about a man who fights with a monkey mask.

There’s little ambiguity in how Patel picks the biggest targets to savage and the more important allies to champions. This becomes most evident with Monkey Man’s obligatory second-act training sequence, which takes place at a temple in Ardhanarishvara. Ardhanarishvara exists between genders and face discrimination within their own country as they struggle to pay bills and keep the aggressors at bay. But the Ardhanarishvara, led by the wise Alpha (Vipin Sharma), becomes inspired by Monkey Man and has such an exciting entrance with colorful outfits and deadly weapons.

Patel’s direction seems to be all about the details, considering how he stages the many fights. He really wants you to see how much work went into the kitchen scene where he battles with frying pans and grills a face. Because he wants every drop of blood and sweat to be seen, the camera gets wildly close and chaotic when the fists, knives, and guns start blazing. This is a bold shooting choice, considering how easy it is for action films with handheld shots to become an erratic mess of smeared violence. The good news is that Patel delivers on this attention to detail. There’s nothing quite like that moment of getting a close-up as Patel forces a knife into someone’s throat with his teeth.

Monkey Man becomes far more than a gimmick and offers far more than a myriad of John Wick knock-offs. The film finds a solid groove between its frenetic haze, bruised arms, and topical staging to become an engrossing action picture. Watching Patel explode on the screen as a towering and believable force that could slaughter his way through an entire tower of bad guys was fun. For being his directorial debut, Patel hits hard, and I’m eagerly waiting to see where he’ll go next.

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