action dev patel monkey man movies sxsw 2024

Dev Patel Promises Monkey Man Is the Opposite of ‘Quick-Buck, Mindless’ Action

Dev Patel ripped his shirt open and the room went wild. He also bit a guy’s face off, sliced someone’s neck with a serving platter, and used his mouth to drive a knife down an extremely unlucky person’s throat. Those got cheers too, but the shirt ripping stood out. If anyone wanted to test the theory that Patel is among Hollywood’s primo heartthrobs, Monday’s SXSW premiere of Monkey Man yielded ample evidence.

Some of that enthusiasm probably stemmed from the fact that, aside from Wes Anderson’s recent Roald Dahl short-film anthology, Patel has not appeared onscreen since 2021’s The Green Knight. “I was reading all these things on the internet like, ‘Where are they now? What’s happened to him?’” Patel joked while introducing the film. This is what’s happened to him: a directorial debut that makes John Wick seem like a lullaby. Monkey Man (in theaters April 5) is indebted to the high-adrenaline Keanu Reeves hit — an arms dealer even references it by name when Patel’s character goes looking for a gun — but it’s more politically minded than its predecessor.

SXSW audiences are known for their ear-piercing enthusiasm. That’s kind of the festival’s whole vibe, which is why the film lineups skew heavily toward raucous comedy and rip-roaring action. Still, Monkey Man earned its fervor, including the standing ovation that brought Patel to tears at the end. During the Q&A, he revealed that, with one electric set piece after the next, he broke a hand, tore his shoulder, and got an eye infection during the shoot. He didn’t appear to regret any of it.

The actor developed the story himself and co-wrote the script with Paul Angunawela (Keith Lemon: The Film) and John Collee (Master and Commander: Far Side of the World). Patel plays Kid, an underground fighter collecting a puny living in a fictional Indian city where an authoritarian regime has unleashed widespread sectarian violence. The government is essentially waging war on the poor, and the elite restaurant-slash-brothel where Kid finds work ranks high among its wanton sanctuaries. But this isn’t just some gig; this is a quest for revenge. Deep inside the Establishment’s VIP lair sit the thugs who killed Kid’s mother when he was young. Once he reaches them, Monkey Man turns into an unrelenting combat saga that kicks off with a bathroom brawl rivaling the one in Mission: Impossible — Fallout.

After producer Jordan Peele introduced Patel at the premiere, the newfound action hero name-checked a load of influences that led to Monkey Man. He fell in love with the genre when he sneaked downstairs as a kid to watch Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, which morphed into an obsession with Jet Li, Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen, and The Raid. “Then I found out about Korean cinema — fuck me,” Patel continued. Plus, of course, John Wick and Bollywood. Even the rubbery physicality of Jim Carrey got a shout-out. “Basically, I think the action genre sometimes has been abused by the system,” Patel said. “Quick-buck, mindless shit. I wanted to give it soul. I wanted to give it real trauma and real pain. You guys deserve that, and I wanted to infuse it with a little bit of culture.” A guy in the crowd responded with a loud “We love you, Dev!” He’s the people’s heartthrob.

Patel initially gave the script to director Neill Blomkamp, who wisely encouraged him to make the movie himself. (Frequent Blomkamp collaborator Sharlto Copley — that’s right, the one and only Chappie — plays the fighting ring’s goggle-eyed emcee.) Patel is clearly studied in action cinema, as evidenced by the long takes in which Kid atomizes one attacker after the next. No kitchen, elevator, police van, or lounge is safe from his cunning ability to turn any nearby object into a weapon. That ingenuity apparently continued on set: When a crane broke, Patel and cinematographer Sharone Meir (Whiplash, Silent Night) rigged a camera from a swinging rope. They also shot a car crash using Patel’s iPhone, and I’m pretty sure we would never have known if Patel hadn’t told us.

Monkey Man is a fable about corruption that’s as steeped in the Hindu religion as it is in neon-drenched hedonism. It’s during a sort of training montage when Kid is being tutored by a mystic (Vipin Sharma), who embodies the best of the feminine and the masculine, that Patel rips his shirt. Even with a chiseled torso, he is not some brawny action beast. This is still the guy who wore a lot of cardigans in The Newsroom, albeit slightly more sinewy and much less jittery. “What you’re going to see here is a guy that doesn’t have a quip for every scenario, isn’t the heftiest dude in the room, and doesn’t look like he’s going to win because he’s an underdog, and that’s what I’ve felt like my whole fucking life,” Patel said. The audience cheered again. As in all good stories, the underdog is now a king.

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Matthew Jacobs , 2024-03-12 21:29:09

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