‘Monkey Man’: Something ‘Wick’-ed this way comes

(2.5 stars)

“Do you like ‘John Wick’?” asks the back-alley gun dealer as he displays his wall of automatic weaponry for the hero. He might as well be directing the question to the audience, since “Monkey Man” seems hellbent on establishing itself as the latest wrinkle in post-Wickian cinema: nonstop mayhem featuring an actor previously thought of as a sweetie pie.

That actor is Dev Patel of “Slumdog Millionaire” and “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel,” who not only stars as the vulnerable yet somehow unkillable avenger known only as Kid but who makes his feature directing debut here, as well. And quite credibly: “Monkey Man” is strictly formula in terms of plot, but it fizzes and sometimes overflows with the style of a first-time filmmaker out to prove what he can do.

The setting is Mumbai, and the Hindu myth of the monkey-god Hanuman provides the film with both its title and its heavy-handed central metaphor. Kid is first seen in an ape mask fighting (and losing) bare-knuckle battles in an underground arena run by a sleazy South African (Sharlto Copley). Through planning and guile, the hero gets hired as a dishwasher in a combination nightclub/VIP brothel for the country’s politically powerful and works his way toward his quarry: a sadistic chief of police (Sikander Kher) and Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), the white-robed spiritual guru who’s running the whole corrupt show.

What Kid’s beef? In flashbacks that take a while to get on with, we learn that he and his sainted mother (Adithi Kalkunte) belonged to an ethnic minority the guru and his followers object to, and things did not end well for the mother. Since this is roughly the plot of every revenge narrative since narrative was invented, it hardly counts as a spoiler.

No, what matters in le Cinema du Wick is that the hero must be stoic and exhausted while remaining upright — both morally and physically — and that he possess nearly mystical fighting skills while being able to improvise using any and all tools at hand: knife, ax, cocktail tray, half a porcelain sink. The other key component of the genre — which, to be fair, owes plenty to decades of martial arts films from Hong Kong, Japan and Thailand — is that the fights be choreographed as nonstop action ballets, stretching and bending the laws of physics as much as any Busby Berkeley dance routine.

It’s on that score that “Monkey Man” stumbles a bit, since director Patel, cinematographer Sharone Meir and fight choreographer Brahim Chab shoot the scenes with an emphasis on handheld close-ups, depriving the audience of the wide, steady action tableaux that are the genre’s chief pleasure. The screenplay by Patel, Paul Angunawela and John Collee is seriously undercooked, too, with a smoldering love interest (Sobhita Dhulipala) and a Ratso Rizzo-style comic sidekick (Pitobash) who both have precious little to do.

High points? A car chase featuring an army of police cars and a souped-up tuk-tuk, an enjoyably bonkers training scene in the form of a duet between Kid on punching bag and the legendary tabla master Zakir Hussain on hand drums, and Patel’s soulful charisma, visible beneath all the muscles and bruises.

Plus, “Monkey Man” addresses the inequities of India’s caste system in ways more pointed than you would expect. The glimpses of Mumbai poverty are brief but harsh, and at one point Kid takes refuge in a temple of abused transgender women led by Alpha (Vipin Sharma), who delivers the necessary mentor mantras to get the hero back on his feet.

There’s also the matter of the movie’s main villain, Baba Shakti — a white-haired ultranationalist power broker who whips worshipful mobs into a frenzy and who may have looked a little too much like India’s prime minister Narendra Modi for Netflix. The streaming giant, which counts India as one of its biggest markets, bought “Monkey Man” after it was filmed in 2021 but let it sit on the shelf for three years until Jordan Peele and Universal Pictures opted to give it a theatrical release. With Netflix balking and India rumored to be delaying the film’s release or planning to heavily censor it, the irony is that Patel may have done something more daring with “Monkey Man” than anything he actually does in it.

R. At area theaters. Strong bloody violence throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use. 121 minutes.

Ty Burr is the author of the movie recommendation newsletter Ty Burr’s Watch List at tyburrswatchlist.com.

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