I can’t have been the only one disappointed that the overseas success of the phenomenal historical epic bromance RRR hasn’t led to more of a spotlight on the bombastic action melodramas that India has been producing for years. It seems that RRR‘s popularity was a bit of a unicorn, sadly.
Still, hope for a “RRR effect” might not be dead. It’s only now after all that films that went into production after that film’s success are being promoted. Now is the moment that, after his versatility, underdog charm and charisma have slowly gained him popularity and accolades as a bona fide movie star, Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel has thrown his hat into the “actors turned director” ring, with producer Jordan Peele (whose Monkey’s Paw studio logo will look very apt preceding this one) announcing the star’s directorial debut, the hilariously titled and awesome-looking. Monkey Man.
The RRR comparison isn’t as facile as you might assume, as just as N.T. Rama Rao did in that film, Patel stars as a social justice warrior of near mythic proportions and with the emphasis on warrior, an avenging angel come from a rural village to the big city to wreak vengeance on the wealthy elites who wronged his family and keep the people of the city in servitude. The story appears to follow the same ‘verdant jungle village at one with nature’ to ‘amoral city rife with danger’ trajectory. The trailer cites the “white monkey” as an ancient spirit of vengeance, after whom Patel’s hero has styled his wrestling persona, in which ring he has evidently been honing his fighting skills as a spry underdog…monkey.
But from the looks of it, Monkey Man is less RRR‘s anti-colonialist epic and more a mash-up of Ramin Bahrani’s underrated thriller The White Tiger with it’s angry inner-city class warfare, with our hero’s quest for vengeance set against what looks like a full-blown uprising, and John Wick‘s stylish action revenge. We even see Patel stroke a stray dog in the trailer so we know he’s a good egg.
There’s a few moments of comedy sprinkled throughout the trailer, which are to be taken with a grain of salt, this wouldn’t be the first film that put literally every low-brow comic beat in the trailer to try and seem accessible. It’s clear that our hero will have to grow into his vigilante shoes, his first outing looks a little rough around the edges, with some slapstick deflation of a few action movie cliches. Still, there doesn’t seem to be any kind of camp value to the intense action tropes at play, despite the outwardly silly title, Monkey Man seems to be pitching itself fairly straight.
Unlike his character though, someone who does seem to be hitting the ground running is Patel, stepping into the director’s chair for the first time since exploding onto our screens fifteen years ago. The shots in the trailer show a good understanding of composition, dynamic framing and making set-pieces that feel grand and intense. There’s a mano-y-mano showdown with his nemesis teased that promises more of a battle of wills than fists that I’m especially keen to see, and the action seems to prioritize longer, fluid takes over fast cuts, but the action doesn’t look at all rehearsed or flat. He’s not an absolute stranger to action, but this is definitely also his first foray into full on action hero mode, but to look at him pummeling the punching bag in his training montage, he looks like he was born into it. Patel has spent years demonstrating his versatility and smashing goons heads into ashtrays looks like another well-resined string to his bow.
The only thing that really does have me nervous is the presence of Sharlto Copley as the ringmaster of the underground fighting ring. You know how some actors get the “and” in the credits, like “…and Judi Dench” or “…and Mark Strong”, for when they’re not the lead but they’re still all the reason you need to see the movie? Well, Sharlto Copley’s one of those actors who deserves to get the “but.” “Monkey Man, starring Dev Patel…but Sharlto Copley, we’re very sorry”. I don’t mean to be cruel to the South African but let’s be honest, has he ever been in anything good? I know people seem to like District 9 (I couldn’t tell you why) but that godawful Oldboy remake, Maleficent, Elysium, Beast…he’s been kiss of death ever since.
Like The White Tiger, the film was purchased by Netflix, but fortunately, after seeing the film Peele reportedly insisted it be witnessed on the big screen, so it will release theatrically on April 5th. How extensive this release will be remains to be seen, but I hope it’s as broad as possible. If the trailer is anything to go by, it certainly won’t short change viewers hoping for some big screen adrenaline and I’m tired of seeing big-screen spectacles wasted on streaming.