Film reviews: Dev Patel's fight for justice in Monkey Man

As co-writer, director and star of Monkey Man, Dev Patel riffs on the John Wick franchise with bone-crunching violence
Monkey Man, directed by and starring Dev PatelMonkey Man, directed by and starring Dev Patel
Monkey Man, directed by and starring Dev Patel

Monkey Man (18) ***

Evil Does Not Exist (12A) ****

Io Capitano (15) ****

Evil Does Not Exist offers a subtly savage critique of the inequities of modern lifeEvil Does Not Exist offers a subtly savage critique of the inequities of modern life
Evil Does Not Exist offers a subtly savage critique of the inequities of modern life

Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel reinvents himself as a post-John Wick action auteur with Monkey Man, co-writing, directing, producing and starring in this relentlessly violent revenge movie, which comes replete with its own simian-infused mythology and oodles of chaotically choreographed punching-stabbing-shooting action.

That Patel is a devotee of the genre is evident from the way his character — known only as Kid — is asked at one point if he’s a John Wick fan, though it’s obvious too from the derivative way he homages the constant combat carnage found in said Keanu Reeves franchise, not to mention The Raid movies, the Kill Bill films, various Bruce Lee and Jason Statham opuses, as well as South Korean action films such as A Bittersweet Life. But he’s also trying to make a socially conscious martial arts movie – with its fictional setting of Yatana a cipher for the extreme wealth disparity of Mumbai and a national election subplot providing Patel with an opportunity to weave in some blunt social commentary about persecuted minority groups and toxic one-percenters.

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If the two impulses don’t mesh together all that well, Patel deserves some credit for trying to do more than what’s required, even if what’s required is really something a little leaner or more inventively structured. Multiple flashbacks to Kid’s traumatic childhood, for instance, over-egg the final act reveal of his true motivation for seeking revenge against Yatana’s corrupt police chief — to the point where the relentlessly grim way he shoots the violence perpetrated against those Kid loves gives the film a self-serious tone that makes the outlandish scenes of martial arts mayhem less fun than they should be. As a director, though, Patel is confident enough not to make Kid a bad-ass from the outset. His first attempt to exact revenge goes horribly and violently wrong in quite a novel way and, though the middle section drags as Patel subsequently tries to explain the mythology, there are flashes when Patel’s willingness to literally and figuratively sink his teeth into the action help him transcend his influences.

Ryûsuke Hamaguchi won an Oscar a couple of years back for Drive My Car, a rather cryptic, epic length adaptation of the Haruki Murikami short story of the same name. His latest film Evil Does Not Exist is half the length and almost as opaque, but there’s a subtly savage critique of the inequities of modern life to be found in its enigmatic ending. A haunting, nuanced eco parable about all the quiet ways exploitation of the natural world impacts everyone and everything, the film takes shape around a lifestyle company called Playmode and their money-grubbing incursion into a largely unspoiled area of woodland on the outskirts of Tokyo. The company’s proposed “glamping” venture, or “glamorous camping”, has been rushed through to capitalise on soon-to-expire Covid recovery subsidies — with zero regard for the livelihoods and well-being of nearby villagers. As the PR agents dispatched to pacify the locals soon discover, however, the villagers are savvier than expected and not about to be bullied or coerced into meekly accepting a half-baked commercial venture.

Io Capitano is an absorbing migrant drama which is inflected with flashes of magic realismIo Capitano is an absorbing migrant drama which is inflected with flashes of magic realism
Io Capitano is an absorbing migrant drama which is inflected with flashes of magic realism

Though there are shades of Local Hero in this set-up, particularly as the aforementioned PR agents Takahashi (Ryuji Kosaka) and Mayuzumi (Ayaka Shibutani) start to appreciate what’s suddenly under threat, the film ploughs a much darker, more abstract furrow as it zeroes in on the villagers’ taciturn point-man, Takumi (Hitoshi Omika), who’s more attuned to the delicate balance of the surrounding ecosystem and delivers practical pronouncements laden with subtext that help illuminate and deepen the film’s themes. But Takumi is also a widower and a father and his own casual neglect of his nine-year-old daughter complicates this portrait of a world in which even the most passive amongst us are revealed to have a breaking point — something hauntingly teased out by the way Hamaguchi frequently deploys blunt cuts to pull us out of the pastoral reverie Eiko Ishibashi’s blissed-out score invokes through out. A poetic and poignant puzzle of a film.

Directed by Matteo Garrone (Gomorrah), Io Capitano is an absorbing migrant drama about a pair of Senegalese cousins on a perilous journey from their home in Dakar to mainland Europe. Fuelled by a naive belief that their internet-fuelled dreams of stardom and riches will come true, Seydou (Seydou Sarr) and Moussa (Moustapha Fall) toil away at mundane jobs, pooling their resources until they have enough to leave their limited (but not loveless) home lives. Though their teenage guilelessness is part of their charm, it’s also part of the tragedy of their situation: they’re too blinded by fantasy to heed the warnings of Seydou’s mother about the likely fate that awaits them, if they survive the journey.

That’s a big “if” and though the final, heart-in-mouth Mediterranean crossing is directly inspired by a true story (one that provides the source of the title), Garrone and his writers have drawn on several analogous accounts of the preceding land trek to provide an eye-opening, scrupulously detailed portrait of the punishing horrors that lie in store for Seydou and Moussa as they’re trafficked across the Sahara and into Libya.

Garrone doesn’t use the film to sensationalise his characters’ odyssey, though. Instead the film – which is inflected with flashes of magic realism – derives most of its power from the empathy his young cast generate as their characters hold on to their humanity in the face of an indifferent world intent on stripping it from them.

All films in cinemas from 5 April.