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Monkey Man

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Early on in director, co-writer, and star Dev Patel’s madcap mashup of a movie, his protagonist Kid sets out to buy a gun. “You like John Wick?” asks the salesman. “This is the same gun he had, except made in China.” You know: a cheap knockoff. A cleverly self-conscious pre-emptive strike against those who might dismiss this revenge drama — with its black suits, its secret sects, its exotic clubs, and its long, loving depictions of brutal hand-to-hand combat — as John Wick, except made in India. You know: a cheap knockoff. Because it aims to be much more than that. The revenge sought here is against the man who killed Kid’s mother — but since that man was the local chief of police, and since the killing was part of a brazenly corrupt land grab by evil forces operating under the guise of restoring Mother India — well, one mother quickly starts to stand for another. And even more than that, as evidenced by the juxtaposition of word and image during our hero’s moments of whispered prayer. (Who really makes you happy?) Which moments bring us back to that “mashup” bit: the scenes between mother and son look and sound like Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. Other scenes recall Guy Ritchie cheekily working the collision of higher and lower classes. And yeah, there’s some John Wick-y stuff. (Why yes, our club is hosting an event honoring India’s next president, but no, none of our security guards have guns, so all disruptions will need to be resolved with punching; why do you ask?) It makes for disconcerting, uneven ride, sort of like a tuk-tuk that is mysteriously equipped with turbo, threading its way through the streets before slamming on the brakes so as to avoid crashing into a little girl. About those streets: they — or rather, the suffering they contain, and the blunt sympathy with which Patel depicts it — are the film’s real strength. That, and the rich imagery and theme provided by the traditional story of Hanuman — the original Monkey Man. Much stronger than his order of transgender warriors in exile, who talk of their devotion to a god who is both creator and destroyer, but don’t seem to teach our hero much beyond rope-a-dope rhythm. (The Cruel Tutelage of Pai Mei this ain’t.) Their leader mentions fighting with purpose; that much, the Kid already had. (2024) — Matthew Lickona

Rated NR | 2.0 hours
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