Saturday, May 18, 2024

Chasing the Gold: Will Dev Patel Carve his Best Actor nomination in Blood?

I still remember the first day I watched Kickboxer. I was 10, back from a day on the beach with my family after unbearable cramps and unpredictable Alexandria weather. That night, Kickboxer was on TV, my mother’s all-time favorite. I sat through the whole thing, mesmerized, heart pounding, body shaking with hunger and intense (childish) desire as Van Damme kicked Thai Pads and banana trees with his shins, doing a deep split to a full extent. Having coconuts dropped on his stomach, sticks swung at his face, and praying in the temple, finding his spirit animal. When it was time for the final in-ring fight, my feelings heightened as the fiery fight scenes reached a culmination, and then…boom! Van Damme won and I got my first period. Talk about a rite of passage.

As a film critic always searching for that feeling, wanting to capture and relive it again for the first time, it’s always difficult to find it in today’s elusive filmmaking scene. With Van Damme on screen, fighting and flexing his muscles, moving his limbs underwater, and raising his pain tolerance, it didn’t feel like I enjoyed Van Damme’s performance or had a crush on him, I wanted to be him. I wanted to have that body that you could use to crush your enemies or get hit by a blunt object, then emerge unharmed, whole, and powerful.

It wasn’t until I watched Monkey Man directed and starring a bloody-knuckled, grimy, and angry Dev Patel, that I realized, “That’s Kickboxer on steroids because, unlike JCVD, Dev Patel is a great actor.”

Monkey Man is an action-packed, bloody, revenge tale; a man takes matters into his own hands, exerting punishment on the elites of the city. It’s The Punisher meets Kickboxer, with a touch of that Slumdog Millionaire vibe that must have influenced Patel subconsciously at some point. Instead of glamorizing and romanticizing the fight, Patel brings viewers to the gritty, sloppy, dirty, and messy background of the violence in the ring. Fighters’ hands shake and they spit their teeth. Their bodies, though glistening with sweat, are also covered in sand and grossness. But Dev Patel’s eyes are feral. There’s not a hint of docility or warmth in them. As his eyes are accentuated by black kohl, his body revels in the grease and bruises of the fight. Then, magic happens and I am immediately transported to that time when I was watching Kickboxer for the first time.

As the movie progresses, I want more. I am cheering on Patel to receive and inflict pain, to be flushed and drenched in it, and soothed by the gravity of its intensity. No modern action film has brought me to the chaotic, somewhat flawed intensity of the heydays of ‘90s action movies like this one. Patel is both potent in the monkey mask and without it. Since he’s the director as well, he knows exactly the keys to his performance, how detailed it is, and how he can pull all the threads to bring out the best in Kid, the main character. As if the god of vengeance transcends the power to him and he yields it to his benefit in every possible way.

Patel took me on a thrill ride of wanting to be Kid/Bobby the Bleach master. I wanted to be Monkey Man, getting beat up but also crushing enemies and plotting to sabotage their empires built on blood and corruption. Steering the wheel himself as director of the film, Patel allows himself the creative liberty to exist in every form of a man tormented by poverty, trauma, and ambition. He has become his own Bruce Lee and his version is layered with multiple acting chops and influences thrown around.

Will Patel’s performance garner award nominations? It would be too early to judge although his performance is no less deserving than many other actors who have garnered more attention whether in this lukewarm season or earlier award seasons.

What stands in the way of Patel’s nomination are two things: first, he is not White, and there is no argument that White performers are granted better exposure and better award recognition, even if lately things have been more optimistic and inclusive. Second, this is an action movie, even if it is more of a bloody, revenge drama, but it is still an action movie and the prestigious award institutes and entities have been less than kind to action films in the acting categories. Action stars or even serious -and I use that term loosely- dramatic actors who venture into action film territory are rarely rewarded for their performances, even deserving ones. 

But that doesn’t take away from the greatness and the depth of his performance. If it were for me in a somewhat sleeper-hit season, Dev Patel would be my first Best Lead Actor award contender.

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