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Opinion: ‘Monkey Man’ knocks James Bond out of the ring

Opinion by Noah Berlatsky

(CNN) — Action movies are a predictable genre, both in terms of narrative arc (the underdog struggles, is apparently defeated…then wins!) and in who gets to be the hero blasting and punching their way along that narrative arc. Director Dev Patel’s preposterous fever dream of a revenge martial arts extravaganza, “Monkey Man,” is both comfortingly familiar and gloriously odd in that context, putting it firmly in line with producer Jordan Peele’s long-time mission of diversifying screen genre product.

Like “Get Out,” “Candyman” and other films Peele has backed, “Monkey Man” shows that, when creators make horror, action or other genres less default-White, they also reimagine them in exciting and unexpected ways. Peele, and now Patel, are determined to make you realize just how staid the genres you love have become.

“Monkey Man” is set in a semi-fictionalized Mumbai, replete with homelessness, crime and swooping, askew camera angles. Dev Patel plays Kid, a skinny scrabbler who makes a precarious living donning a monkey mask as a wrestler and throwing fights. However, his real life’s work is revenge. He becomes a dishwasher in a sordid club to get close to his target, police chief Rana (Sikandar Kher).

A lot of this is fairly standard issue. Rana is identifiable as the bad guy, thanks to his questionable choices in facial hair; the seedy club features many sex workers gyrating for the lascivious pleasure of the goons and/or the movie viewers. There is a strategically placed training montage; there is a car chase. John Wick gets a shoutout, and Kid’s backstory of childhood-trauma-inspiring-mask-wearing-vigilantism is more than a little reminiscent of Batman, even if, in this case, the Joker and Commissioner Gordon are the same person.

While the structure and references aren’t especially surprising, the approach is refreshingly disorienting. Usually, action or revenge films set in non-Western locales and marketed towards Western audiences put a White hero at the center, and he (or sometimes she) provides a stable point of view from which to enter and enjoy the extreme virtual tourism. James Bond rushes from tropical island to East Asia, his immaculate suit perfectly in place. Chris Hemsworth’s Tyler Rake slogs sweatily through South Asia and Eastern Europe in the “Extraction” films exterminating various swarthy antagonists; “Dune” protagonist Paul Atreides leaves his lush home world to rule the desert people in the hinterland.

These stories have a linear inevitability: the hero starts here, where things are (supposedly) stable and civilized. Then they travel over there where crime and death run rampant, so that they can impose (implicitly colonial) order.

“Monkey Man,” by contrast, revels in its refusal to provide an outsider’s perspective. Exposition and backstory are provided haphazardly while that rushing, mobile camera, puts you at street level in the action, leaving you to untangle myths, relationships, antagonisms and political metaphors as best you can.

Everyone — viewers and characters alike — start out behind that monkey mask in the ring, trying to peer through the eyeholes as blood and fists and teeth and hyperviolent fight choreography (including a remarkable amount of biting) come at you. You know what’s going to happen next, and at the same time, you probably aren’t expecting the sneaky street dog assist, or the awesome deus ex machina via trans women warrior-priests.

Patel obviously isn’t the first creator to think about and play with the ways that genre can change if you scramble assumptions about who gets to be at the center of which stories. Bruce Lee’s martial arts movies were created abroad, but in the US, their depiction of a non-White hero kicking butt and taking names became an important symbol of empowerment and resistance for Black audiences.

Carl Franklin’s wonderful 1995 “Devil In A Blue Dress” is a neo-noir in which the genre’s moral ambiguity is contrasted with, and scrambled by, the ambiguity of racial identity and racial passing. Alice Wu’s 2004 “Saving Face” deepens the rom-com’s message of love conquering all by focusing on a lesbian relationship between two Chinese American women. And of course, Jordan Peele’s 2017 “Get Out” reverses horror’s conflation of terror with marginalized people by turning White people into an all-powerful, conscienceless and ravenous Other.

These predecessors, though, were mostly relatively small budget endeavors focused on genres (noir, romcom, horror) that can be produced with limited resources and can pay back their investment even if they don’t find a huge mainstream audience. Even so, “Devil in a Blue Dress” (made for a substantial $27 million) didn’t make back its budget, and neither did “Saving Face”, despite having a tiny production budget of $2.5 million.

Action movies — even relatively gritty ones without fanciful superhero CGI — require a bigger outlay for location and stunts. We’re slowly getting some films like “Black Panther.” But even so, if you don’t have the juggernaut of the Marvel Cinematic Universe behind you, there’s still been a huge incentive to play it safe, in terms of who gets to be the star and how the story is told.

“Get Out,” made on a $4.5 million budget with a stunning gross of $255 million, has (like “Black Panther”) helped change the calculus, both by example and because it made Jordan Peele a force in Hollywood. Peele created a renaissance of Black horror films by making them himself (“Us,” “Nope”), by producing them (“Candyman”) and by creating a space in which movies like “His House” or “The Blackening” get greenlit.

Now, Peele is using his resources to branch out beyond horror and into other genre fare. “Monkey Man” was plagued by production difficulties and financial struggles. Netflix bought it, then abandoned it. It might still be gathering dust and indifference on an obscure shelf somewhere if Peele hadn’t grabbed it, fur, teeth and all, for a discounted price of $10 million, and hurled it out of the ring and into the crowd.

“The action genre has been abused by the system,” Patel said at the film’s preview at SXSW. “You know, a quick buck. Mindless s**t. I wanted to give it soul.” That’s an admirable sentiment — and one that isn’t just restricted to action movies. Genres are fun in part because they hit expected beats. But when creators tell the same stories about the same people, everything is almost inevitably going to start to look and sound the same.

Putting a different mask on the face you know, or putting a different face behind the mask, can help you see new possibilities in those old, hoary narratives. “Monkey Man” growls and spits and beats its chest and leaps you’re never quite sure where. More action movies should be this hairy and weird. Thanks to Peele and Patel, maybe more will be.

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