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'Monkey Man' Review: Dev Patel's Mashup of Action and Slumdog Fable

“Enter the Dragon,” starring Bruce Lee, is one of the four or five greatest action films ever made. Yet it has a thin, awkward, lurching story. The movie gets away with it, of course; the plot is merely a frame on which to hang Lee’s singular hypnotic balletic fighting bravura. In that spirit, there are countless action films that have functional, bare-bones plots, from the revenge sagas of Steven Seagal, Jean-Claude van Damme, Chuck Norris, or Jason Statham to the “John Wick” films to the action dramas of South Korea (“The Man from Nowhere,” “I Saw the Devil”) and Indonesia (“The Raid” and its sequel). So when you watch “Monkey Man,” a film that has blistering fight scenes and was directed and co-written by its star, Dev Patel, you’d think that the movie, like those others, would be able to transcend whatever limitations it might have as a drama.

Yet “Monkey Man,” while it qualifies as a volatile, rabble-rousing action film, is a very different kind of brew. It’s set in the squalid underbelly of Yatana, a fictional Indian city that feels a lot like Mumbai, and when I say squalid I mean squalid — Patel stages it with a feverish eye toward what poverty and desperation really look like. The movie was influenced by almost every one of the films I mentioned above, yet it’s not a stylized kamikaze Western in urban night clothes like the “John Wick” films, or a martial-arts bash. Patel, in his first outing as a filmmaker, wants to heighten our senses, but he’s also out to tell a story steeped in Indian mythology and urban grime.

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Playing a character known as Kid, who works as an underground fight-club boxer who gets paid each night to put on a rubber gorilla mask and get beaten to a pulp, Patel creates a hero who is very much not some invincible combat superstar. Kid, as he heads down the path of revenge, doesn’t always throttle his adversaries — there are moments when he gets throttled — and the action is staged in realistic settings with dingy lurid lighting and a hand-held existential flavor. At times, it’s as if we’re watching Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” played in fast motion.

But that’s because the action is only part of the story. “Monkey Man” is two hours long, and most of the film is actually quiet and foreboding — a long, deliberate build-up to the moment when Kid takes matters into his own hands. It’s like the slow-burn origin story of a righteously vicious, go-for-broke street fighter. And while I’m all for an action movie that’s trying to be more than a ride, the truth is that “Monkey Man” takes itself awfully seriously. Patel wants to make his story “real,” but he hasn’t given it depth; he’s just given it a kind of dark-side-of-Mumbai longueurs along with fashionably jagged cinematography. The movie has three extended action sequences, and I would have been happier if it had eight of them — that is, if it had less pretensions and, like the “Wick” films, was more willing to wear its pulp on its sleeve.

“Monkey Man” was originally backed by Netflix and would have been shown there, but after Jordan Peele bought the rights and came onboard as a producer, a theatrical release was engineered for it. The film, which opens on April 5, has a chance to connect, especially if the viewers who made “RRR” an indie sensation turn out for it. I suspect, though, that “Monkey Man” may be too glum and plodding for much of the mainstream audience. I kept going in and out of the movie. Yet Patel does one thing superlatively well, and that’s using the film as a pedestal for his downbeat star performance. As Kid, he makes himself, quite deliberately, an unlikely action hero — skinny-muscled and morose, with an anger that simmers almost neurotically. When he finally explodes, it’s with a rage we only half saw coming.

What’s the revenge about? There are numerous flashbacks to Kid as a young boy, and in one of them he watches his mother, Neela (Adithi Kalkunte), get brutally murdered by an evil police officer, because she wouldn’t submit to his sexual aggression. The cop, Rana (played with a perpetual glower by Sikandar Kher), is also the man who destroyed Kid’s village. So Kid, like John Wick, is on a personal odyssey of vengeance that involves fighting a larger corruption. To all that Patel adds another symbolic layer, derived from the epic Hindu poem “The Ramayan” and the deity named Hanuman. It’s all a little somber and top-heavy for a movie that’s basically about Kid infiltrating a criminal empire by getting a job as a dishwasher and working his way up the ladder of corruption.

The best thing about “Monkey Man” is Patel’s staging of, and acting in, the fight scenes. They’re far more random and spontaneous than we’re used to, with a razory intensity, culminating in the scene where Kid gently sticks a knife in his adversary’s throat; momentarily denied access to his hands, Kid then uses his teeth to shove the knife in even further. That’s a crowd-pleasing moment of sadistic fervor. Yet “Monkey Man,” for all of Patel’s instincts as a director-star, is a grandiose anomaly — a movie that seesaws, and not all that smoothly, between hellbent battle and slumdog fable.

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