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Unlikely heroes stand up to corruption in 'The Old Oak' and 'Monkey Man'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Let's talk about a couple of movies coming out this weekend. One's from a first-time feature director, another from an old hand. The first-timer is actor Dev Patel, who stepped behind the camera to make the "John Wick"-style thriller, "Monkey Man." And the old hand is social realist Ken Loach, whose 27th feature, "The Old Oak," is being billed as his swan song. Critic Bob Mondello says, as different as the two films are, they share a focus on people societies left behind.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: We meet TJ, the proprietor of the Old Oak pub, as he's helping a family of Syrian refugees move into the run-down England coal town he calls home. His neighbors are less welcoming.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE OLD OAK")

DAVE TURNER: (As TJ Ballantyne) You're terrifying them. Keep it down. (ph)

(CROSSTALK)

TURNER: (As TJ Ballantyne) They're just kids, man. Let them get in their house and get settled, man.

MONDELLO: One of the refugees, Yara...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE OLD OAK")

EBLA MARI: (As Yara) Give me the camera.

MONDELLO: ...Has her camera broken in a scuffle, and TJ forms a bridge to her family by getting it fixed and just by being friendly, showing Yara photos his uncle took when the coal town pulled together in tough times. Yara reads a caption.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE OLD OAK")

MARI: (As Yara) When you eat together, you stick together.

TURNER: (As TJ Ballantyne) My mother always said that.

MARI: (As Yara) Before we left Syria, we used to cook together, too, with our neighbors.

TURNER: (As TJ Ballantyne) That's taken during the strike. I was just a young lad. I'd just started down the pit. And the government tried to starve us back to work, so we made sure that we ate together every day.

MONDELLO: But outreach to the Syrians doesn't sit well with some of his pub's customers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE OLD OAK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) They always put them around here, but they never put them in Chelsea or Westminster, do they?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Well, of course they don't. They don't want them living by them, do they? It's why they're dumping them on us by the busload.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Exactly.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Aye.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I mean, I'm not against refugees, immigrants - I mean, God, my father was Irish. But we're supposed to share it with that lot? We don't even know them. And if you say anything about it, all the posh wankers make you out to be a racist.

MONDELLO: It's easy to imagine where Hollywood would take this story - communities finding common ground, sentiment placed front and center.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE OLD OAK")

MARI: (As Yara) Imagine if all the families mix and start to eat together. We can become friends.

MONDELLO: But Ken Loach doesn't do Hollywood. He does blue-collar realism, and he always puts politics front and center.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE OLD OAK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) I'm no racist, but I'm not happy about the school. All those extra kids in there - it's holding everyone back.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Exactly.

MONDELLO: "The Old Oak" is part three of an informal trilogy Loach began a decade ago. He'd been talking about retiring, but the combination of Brexit and cuts to Britain's social safety net gave the old socialist lots of new things to say - about bureaucratic red tape in the film "I, Daniel Blake," about the cruelty of the gig economy in "Sorry We Missed You" and now about refugees encountering locals who've been radicalized by social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE OLD OAK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #7: (As character) Well, I say we should draw a line in the sand, eh? Enough's enough. It starts here. This village, this pub, The Old Oak - we should have a public meeting...

MONDELLO: The filmmaker does not demonize these locals. He's clear that market forces have put this coal town's residents in the same boat as the refugees - destroying livelihoods, shredding property values.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE OLD OAK")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) It was sold online at auction a couple of weeks ago - some company in Cyprus.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) How much?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #8: (As character) Eight grand each.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #9: (As character) Aye, I'm screwed. We paid five times that...

MONDELLO: You have to hope "The Old Oak" won't really be Ken Loach's last film. But if it is, the 87-year-old director is going out with voice undimmed - holding to account not just the wealthy, but the underdogs he's so long championed and making a stirring case, as he always has, for compassion.

Dev Patel's "Monkey Man" also has compassion for the oppressed in a Mumbai slum surrounded by wealth and privilege.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MONKEY MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #10: (As character) They don't even see us.

MONDELLO: But it's a way of dealing with that injustice is blunter.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRASHING)

MONDELLO: Patel both directs "Monkey Man" and plays its title character, who makes a meagre living getting beat up at a local fight club while wearing a gorilla mask.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MONKEY MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #11: (As character) Are you ready for the fight (ph)?

MONDELLO: He gets a bonus when he bleeds. But what he's really after is revenge on the corrupt real estate developers who destroyed his community and murdered his mother. That requires him to get inside their operation. And to get a job interview, he orchestrates a playfully complicated purse-snatching - one that's flash-edited with enough flair to suggest Patel was paying attention to camera moves when he was the teen star of "Slumdog Millionaire." It's a setup for far more violent sequences later - gruesome slashing, bone crushing...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MONKEY MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #12: (As character) Just one small ember can burn down everything.

MONDELLO: None of his previous films suggested Patel would have martial arts chops, either in front of or behind the camera, but he's plenty persuasive, sporting both washboard abs and, for part of the film, bandages on a hand he broke shooting an early fight sequence.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MONKEY MAN")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #13: (As character) What happened to your hands?

DEV PATEL: (As Kid) Car crash. Engine caught fire.

MONDELLO: One elaborate kitchen battle he ended up doing essentially one-handed, with a torn shoulder and recently broken toes. Even after all the pain, "Monkey Man" appeared headed for streaming hell when Netflix let it sit unreleased for more than a year. Happily, filmmaker Jordan Peele saw its theatrical potential and signed on as producer, helping it get into cinemas. And that is where this underestimated underdog of a film will be making its exuberant case this weekend for underdogs.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONDELLO: I'm Bob Mondello.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Bob Mondello
Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.