Producers: Dev Patel, Jomon Thomas, Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, Ian Cooper, Basil Iwanyk, Erica Lee, Christine Haebler, Sam Sahni and Anjay Nagpal   Director: Dev Patel   Screenplay: Dev Patel, Paul Angunawela and John Collee   Cast: Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley, Pitobash, Vipin Sharma, Sikandar Kher, Sobhita Dhulipala, Ashwini Kalsekar, Adithi Kalkunte and Makarand Deshpande   Distributor: Universal

Grade: C

On the evidence of his first outing as a writer-director, it appears that actor Dev Patel yearns to embody an Indian version of John Wick, wreaking brutal vengeance on those who have wronged him.  But “Monkey Man” adds a lot of other elements into a lumpy bundle.  It’s part “Rocky” or “Karate Kid” tale of the hapless worm who turns into a champion—but one told in terms of Hindu mythology.  There’s even a nod to spaghetti westerns of the Sergio Leone variety.  And to top it off, it’s part commentary on how much of the country’s population remains in the thrall of both a corrupt economic system and a political power structure that pretends to be populist while contributing to the cruel exploitation of ordinary people.

That’s quite a burden to carry, and despite its consistently frenetic energy, the movie collapses under the weight of its multiple objectives.

The reason behind the plans of the Kid-With-No-Name (Patel) is parceled out piecemeal as the fractured narrative proceeds.  As a child he enjoyed an idyllic existence in a happy farming village, complete with lush forest, with his mother Neela (Adithi Kalkunte), who regaled him with heroic stories of the god Hanuman, who is half-human, half-monkey.  But their joyous life together, portrayed in dreamlike, lush flashbacks, was crushed by a brutal armed attack led by Rana (Sikandar Kher), working on behalf of industrialist Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), who camouflages his destructive greed in words of progress as well as spurious religiosity.  Kid actually watched Rana destroy the village and kill his mother.

Now Kid is a young man living hand-to-mouth in the vast urban landscape of Yatana, which looks very much like Mumbai.  He survives by making money getting beaten to a pulp while wearing a gorilla mask in bouts hosted by slimy Australian Tiger (Sharlto Copley) at an underground fight club, where betting is rampant among the bloodthirsty spectators.

But Kid has another purpose in mind.  In a frenetic and complicated action sequence set in the streets, he stage-manages the theft of the cell phone of Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar), the manager of a high-toned club in Yatana where the city’s elites party in VIP rooms.  Returning the phone to her with a plea for a job, she takes him on as a dishwasher, and helped by Alphonso (Pitobash), Queenie’s lame, disrespected chief gofer while befriending Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala), one of the establishment’s in-house escorts (along with a stray dog he finds in the alley outside), he’s soon promoted to waiter, a position in which he can accost Rana, now Chief of Police, with a pistol he buys with his meagre income. 

Their first protracted encounter, a bout of mindless mayhem in the washroom of the club (just wait for that huge fish tank to explode!), does not achieve its objective, and Kid is forced to flee, badly injured and pursued by the cops.  Fortunately he’s taken in by a group of hijras tending to a sacred Bodhi tree under the leadership of Alpha (Vipin Sharma), under whose tutelage he trains so fiercely (with the help of a punching bag and a drummer who sets the rhythm of the blows) that he returns to the ring at Tiger’s a powerhouse, takes on Rama and his minion again with success, and finally deals with the treacherous Baba Shakti, who is on the verge of winning an election for the virulently nationalistic Sovereign Party.

The film offers lavishly rendered backdrops in the production design of Pawas Sawatchaiyamet and costumes by Divvya and Nidhi Gambhir, whether the locales are the lush forests of Kid’s nostalgic childhood memories, or the interiors of Queenie’s VIP lounges, or—to use the other extreme—the squalid streets and byways of Yatana and the ring at Tiger’s place, with its wooden bleachers filled with screaming fans.  Sharone Meir’s cinematography captures it all in widescreen images that go from bizarre beauty to sheer ugliness, and works together with the nimble editing of Dávid Jancsó, Tim Murrell and Joe Galdo to fashion fight sequences that are viscerally ferocious, if often too long and arguably too explicit in their violence.  Naturally the score by Jed Kurzel pounds away furiously in the background.

Most of the acting is fairly perfunctory—Kher is a pretty stock villain, Pitobash a  pretty stock comic foil, Copley a pretty stock sleaze ball and Dhulipala a pretty (in her case especially so) romantic interest.  But Sharma brings an easygoing gravitas to Kid’s savior and trainer, and Deshpande a coolly sinister vibe to evil Shakti, whom each viewer is left free to correlate with particular political leaders either in India or elsewhere in the world.

As for Patel, the movie, made for Netflix but released to theatres instead, obviously represents a significant change of pace for him, but his commitment to the story, both physical and emotional, is evident in every frame.  Whether intended primarily as an exercise in technique or as meaningful socio-political commentary, it certainly proves his chops both in front of the camera and behind it. 

Still, whatever Patel’s intentions “Monkey Man” comes across as little more than blood-soaked cinematic schlock on steroids, but its exoticism and high velocity may appeal to action fans, if they don’t mind reading subtitles—this is a multi-language movie.