‘Monkey Man’ Review: Vengeance Is His

The thriller “Monkey Man” opens on a tender scene and a nod to the power of storytelling, only to quickly get down to down-and-dirty, action-movie business with a flurry of hard blows and faster edits. For the next two frenetic hours, it repeatedly cuts back to the past — where a mother and child happily lived once upon a bucolic time — before returning to the grubby, raw-knuckle present. There, the hits keep coming and the hero keeps taking them, again and again, in a movie that tries so hard to keep you entertained, it ends up exhausting you.

Set largely in a fictional city in India, “Monkey Man” stars Dev Patel as a character simply called Kid who, in classic film-adventure fashion, is out to avenge a past wrong. To do that, Kid, who works as a human punching bag in shadowy ring fights (Sharlto Copley plays the M.C.), must take repeat beatings so that he can, like all saviors, triumphantly rise. Before he does, he has to execute a complicated plan that pits him against power brokers working both sides of the law. As with most genre movies, you can guess how it all turns out for our hero.

Kid’s half-baked plan involves an underworld operation with national political designs, and it takes him to one of those dens of inequity that movies love, filled with slinky women, thuggish men and lines of white powder that lead to corridors of power. As the story comes into blurry focus, Patel gestures at the real world and folds in some mythology, but these elements only create expectations for a complex story than never emerges. What mostly registers is an overarching sense of exploitation and desperation: Everyone is always hustling someone else. That gives the movie a provocative pessimism, one that Patel seems eager to counter with the flashbacks to Kid’s mother, Neela (Adithi Kalkunte), a saintly figure in chokingly tight close-up.

Patel, who directed the movie from a script written by him, Paul Angunawela and John Collee, is an appealing screen presence and you’re rooting for him — both as a character and as a filmmaker — right from the start. As an actor, he was built for empathy, with a slender frame and melting eyes that he can light up or expressively dim to create a sense of vulnerability. His performance in “Monkey Man” requires a lot from him below the neck — he has sculpted his body into stunt-ready shape, as a bit of striptease shows — but it’s his beseeching eyes that draw you to him. That’s especially crucial because while the messy story crams in a great deal — sad ladies, musclemen, brutal cops, exploited villagers, a false prophet and the Hindu god Hanuman, who appears as half-human, half-monkey — it never coheres.

Patel does some fine work in “Monkey Man” even if its fight sequences rarely pop, flow or impress; they’re energetic but uninspired. Far more striking is an extended sequence early in the story that begins with a thief on a scooter robbing a woman at an outdoor cafe. The bandit zooms off only to soon hand the pilfered item off to someone else who — as the camera hurries alongside each courier — rapidly snakes through the streets before passing the stolen object to another person (and so on) until the package finally lands in Kid’s hands. It’s a witty, flashy bit that announces Patel’s filmmaking ambitions and visually expresses how the story itself zigs and zags even as it hurtles forward.

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