‘Slumdog’ star takes successful stab at helming new action hero franchise

Dev Patel successfully manages actor-turned-director move

Monkey Man
In theatres
What: Movie, 113 mins.
When: Fri., April 5
Genre: Action
Rating: NNN (out of 5)
Why you should watch: An entertaining throwback to mid-tier ’90s action films.

GENERALLY speaking, movie star-turned-director films can be summed up as either Sundance-friendly actor showcases or brazen vanity projects (in fact, sometimes they can be both). In the case of Monkey Man, the directorial debut of Slumdog Millionaire and Lion star Dev Patel ­­— in which he also stars — we can maybe see a hint of the latter, with the actor making a bid to be what seems like the first millennial action hero. After all, it’s easy to forget that most action franchises are still anchored by boomers like Tom Cruise and Keanu Reeves. Though paired with the guiding hand of producer Jordan Peele, Patel turns in a surprisingly solid first stab (no pun intended) at the genre.

He plays his new franchise-hopeful hero, the succinctly named Kid, who bides his time earning wages as both a member of a kitchen staff and perhaps more excitedly, an underground fight club warrior who participates in every match boldly wearing a gorilla mask. The recipient of many deadly blows in the ring night after night, he’s an undeniable expert at taking pain, that of the emotional kind too — flashbacks show a childhood marked by the death of his mother and torching of his home village at the hand of military brutes. But a chance for revenge finally emerges when both the savage police captain responsible for these traumatic events emerges in the entourage of a right-wing populist leader on the campaign trail, leading Kid down an unending journey of violence.

The bevy of hand-to-hand combat and neon lights that ensues in Kid’s quest for vengeance will certainly earn instant comparisons to the John Wick series, and the film even anticipates it when an arms dealer name-drops the movie to Kid when showing off a potential handgun. Though personally, this critic found Monkey Man a far more likable venture than those rather tired films.

While perhaps less technically proficient, as many of the film’s fight scenes are frankly underlit and shot too closely, the chaotic blur of the film’s images still felt like a welcome counterpoint to the deadening, almost immoral hyper-competence of Wick’s endless number of balletic headshots, with the film almost stumbling into the beautiful and borderline avant-garde. You can feel a bit more the blood, sweat and tears going into Monkey Man’s creation, even if the self-seriousness means a little too much build up to the action and some veers into goofy surrealist symbolism. Though, of course, don’t worry as there’s still the requisite scene of brutal violence scored ironically to an upbeat pop song.

All that being said, even if Patel and director of photography Sharone Meir lean a little too heavily into hand-held camera work and nauseating closeups to create a visual language sometimes closer to festival drama than Friday night action programmer, the film still delivers on the goods as judged by the preview audience letting out audibles gasps and cheers at numerous bloody beats. Let’s just hope to not find ourselves losing patience by the inevitable release of the three-hour epic, Monkey Man Chapter 4.