Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 08, 2024 9:50 pm 
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Patel's directorial debut is violent and beautiful abstract cinematic art


Dev Patel has gradually grown over the years and now, at 33, has blossomed with a film wholly his own. The story idea is his, the script he co-wrote, he directed it, and he stars in it. The choice of an Indian setting for a very violent action movie must be his own distinctive choice born out of his background. HIs parents, though originally from Nairobi, Kenya, are both of Gujarati Indian descent; and of course he looks perfectly Indian, only he's from Harrow, London, and sounds it. This, though people know him as the Indian boy who got suddenly rich and famous depicted in Danny Boyle's highly popular film Slumdog Millionaire. Dev's done many other notable things. He's even recently been in Wes Anderson's Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar. He will always be, to some of us, the goofy fellow in "Skins," where he first notably appeared, using his own English accent, at the age of sixteen. He's been around for seventeen years, doing many roles and accents.

Along the way he's played in English literary classics in The Green Knight and an offbeat (in being colour-blind) version of David Copperfield. But before that he performed the difficult task of mastering an Australia accent for the true saga, Lion. He used his own normal UK accent, as an IT whiz for the US TV series "Newsroom", and, doing an Indian accent again, played brilliant maths genius S. Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity.

He's also played that "Skins" goofiness but with an Indian accent in the Best Marigold Hotel franchise, where he took on an Indian role, which he does here: Monkey Man takes place in an Indian city called Yatana, a fictional stand-in for Mumbai. Dev showed all kinds of talent from the start and he has been all over the map. Those who've followed him knew that he has long been an accomplished martial artist. He also used to visit India a lot. This all comes together in Monkey Man, a violent action film whose climactic passages are a breathless sequence of unending to the death man-to-man combat sequences. Monkey Man is a demanding role for Dev Patel in more ways than ever before. And it's exciting to watch it happen.

It's been said that Monkey Man is as violent as Gareth Evans' 2012 The Raid: Redemption. - a movie consisting almost entirely of violent fighting in a dark ghetto building 15 stories high, fighting to the death with weapons and pistols but mostly with machetes and knives and hand-to-hand combat. If you want pure violence, maybe The Raid is better. But Monkey Man has more. It has the charisma of Dev Patel, tall, handsome, dark, with glowing teeth and glistening black hair; a revenge story of family trauma; the flavor of political and social inequalities of India, and hints of a world of spiritual redemption, all in a whirl of beautiful, sometimes abstract cinematic images.

The lead character's mentally and physically scarred character lives for revenge, for wrongs done to him and his mother Neela (Adithi Kalkunte) as a child when she was killed as villagers were being removed from their forest homes. He's now a slum dweller known as Bobby or Kid who fights wearing a simian mask and gets the titular billing of Monkey Man. In this he partakes of the legendary, since the monkey links him with Hanuman, the companion of the god Rama and incarnation of the god Shiva. The emcee of these events is the F-word rich, riotous Tiger (Sharlto Copley, devouring and delighting in his part). The Kid gets close to the objects of his hatred by being hired by Queenie Kapoor (Ashwini Kalsekar, one of a number of beautiful Indian women in the early part of the film), whose restaurant is a frequent hangout of the police chief (Sikandar Kher), one of the Kid's arch enemies.

There is a lot of politics tied to this, which may lead, indeed apparently is leading, to censorship problems for the movie in India, since its expected release there has been delayed. The police chief of the film is allied with the Sovereign Party, headed by Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande) a self-styled guru and pious hypocrite, which looks a little too like India's actual ruling BJP, and is deliciously unctuous and fake. Bilge Eberi in New York/Vulture] makes use of information from an Indian colleague to point out how frequently this movie underlines interconnections between religious and violence in its Indian settings, "religious imagery" in "righteous violence." I recommend also Swarah Salih, whose review in YEntertainment describes this as "a thrilling and spiritually resonant action film that offers more than its surface promise of an exciting action romp," and explains this in detail. But Patel has also done his action film homework too, as Matthew Jackson explains in his more admiring AV Club review, touching on all the works of the genre, not slavishly, but so that it's clear how this one relates to yet transcends the tradition in its own way.

These reviewers point out, and I would too here, that what I'm summarizing here, must be qualified by explaining that all these, however rich, details of Monkey Man's plot aren't spelled out in this kind of obvious way we're using here, but are vaguely hinted, at first wholly non-verbally, only gradually filling in with words and flashbacks. This is a film that is so non-verbal, and in its early sequences so violently close-up in all its images, that it reads sometimes more like an avant-garde work of abstract cinematic imagery than an action film. This felt off-putting and confusing, though if one went with the flow it was uniquely beautiful, and with Dev Patel threaded in and out of it.

You also may not know know what is going to happen; are waiting for an action film without, quite, the action. Then, halfway through, it comes, in spades. Monkey Man gradually pulls back and has more long shots, and also settles in to the violent martial arts film is always wanted to be - except that it's more sophisticated than that, both visually, and in the complex political and religious references that reveal how, during and in between Patel's lifelong frequent visits to India from his native England, he was indeed doing a lot of homework. And he was struggling to make this film. It reportedly took multiple tries, growing and layering as it went onto his initial image, which began with nothing but the image of a masked Monkey Man fighter with a link to Hanuman. The time and the layers have now payed off.

This isn't necessarily an easy watch - not because of the violence: some, perhaps most, of us come for that. Rather because at first it's difficult to follow, with its extreme closeups, implicit rather than explicit exposition, and its frequent switches from English to yellow-subtitled Bengali dialogue: it's definitely a film that will grow on repeat viewings.

Monkey Man, 121 mins., debuted in SXSW Austin Mar. 11, 2024 (winning the Audience Award there), opening theatrically in UK and US Apr. 5. Metacritic rating : 71%.

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