Movie Review: Dev Patel's 'Monkey Man' is a political allegory bathed in blood

Has there been a more satisfying actor to watch mature on screen in recent years than Dev Patel? The endearingly earnest, scrawny kid of “Slumdog Millionaire” has steadily grown into a singularly intense and sensitive leading man. It’s a transformation that, for anyone who missed “Lion,"“The Personal History of David Copperfield” or “The Green Knight,” may be especially jarring in watching Patel’s new film, “Monkey Man.”

Like “Slumdog Millionaire,” the film is set in Mumbai and has a touch of fable to it. But in tone and texture, it could hardly be more different. Bathed in blood and fury, “Monkey Man” is one gory coming out party for Patel, who also directed and co-wrote the film. He kicks so much butt in this movie — at one point he punches a punch — that it’s enough to make you wonder if the search for the new James Bond ought to be redirected.

“Monkey Man,” produced by Jordan Peele, is aiming for something grittier, though — more in Bruce Lee territory or the neighborhood of Park Chan-wook’s “Oldboy" — wild, kinetic places to be where martial-arts action turns mythic and feverish. At its best moments, “Monkey Man” does that tradition justice. But at all its moments, the movie is a convincing display of Patel’s still-expanding power and tenacity as a performer.

“Monkey Man” is most explosive in its blistering first half-hour. Patel’s character, credited only as Kid, fights while wearing a gorilla mask in an underground boxing ring. Our first image of him is of his head, in that mask, hitting the canvas hard.

These scenes, presided over by Sharlto Copley’s ring leader, have a masochist edge to them, as does Kid’s corresponding efforts to get closer to a den of power and corruption housed in the high-rise King’s Club. We don’t know initially the reasons for his obsession; he’s a mysterious, single-minded figure compelled by hellbent revenge.

And we watch with curiosity as he works his way into the building as a dishwasher hired by manager Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar) and, soon thereafter, gains a promotion to waiter to get himself up to the penthouse. His focus is on the police chief Rana (Sikandar Kher) and the build-up to their brutal first encounter is a swiftly edited, kinetic swirl. It fails, sending Kid on a clattering cascade down the building and beyond. Out of the frying pan, into the prostitution den with the ax-wielding maniac.

But while “Monkey Man” is thrillingly enigmatic at first, it’s overly leaden with exposition once it settles in. To its credit, the movie has other things on its mind. It opens with the Hindu epic poem “Ramayana,” in which the deity Hanuman mistakes the sun for a mango and has his powers stripped.

“Monkey Man” is sketched symbolically against the story of Hanuman but set in a sordid, contemporary Mumbai (technically it’s a fictional city named Yatana). The syndicate Kid is trying to infiltrate ultimately leads to a religious leader (Makarand Deshpande). “Monkey Man,” which Netflix dropped before it was picked up by Peele and Universal, is pointedly political in its fictionalized echoes of modern, Modi-led India.

While Kid recovers with the help of the sage Alpha (Vipin Sharma) and a group of transgender women in hiding, these elements are slowly brought from a simmer to a boil. “Monkey Man” makes room for cutaways to TV news reports (some footage comes from real demonstrations) and copious flashbacks to a violent land grab from Kid’s childhood, during which his mother Neela (Adithi Kalkunte) was brutally murdered.

The real-world metaphors and Hindu contexts of “Monkey Man” add to the film’s potency but aren’t always smoothly incorporated. This is a movie that namechecks “John Wick,” too. And it’s more successful in its frenetic fight choreography leading up to a bloody third-act showdown imbued with the rage of class uprising.

But regardless of any incongruities, “Monkey Man” makes for a forceful directorial debut from Patel. More than anything else, he brings a compelling gravity to a film that is quite serious about getting seriously brutal.

“Monkey Man,” a Universal Pictures release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for strong bloody violence throughout, language throughout, sexual content/nudity and drug use. Running time: 121 minutes. Three stars out of four.