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'Monkey Man' Review

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April 4, 2024
Hunter Friesen
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Dev Patel’s Monkey Man lives and breathes in a world of action. Everyone is unruly and agitated, the mirrors are perpetually broken, the harsh lighting bathes everything in shadows, the TVs are always tuned to the exposition news channel, and the fans are dramatically spinning above everyone’s heads. Patel has openly expressed his influences for his first directorial feature; ranging anywhere from Bruce Lee, Korean action films such as Oldboy and I Saw the Devil, and the John Wick series. There’s a little bit of everything mixed into this killer cocktail, which is finished off with some Indian mythology and political commentary.

The biggest inspiration for Monkey Man is, of course, the legend of Hanuman, the Hindu monkey deity. It serves as the opening prologue, given by the mother of Patel’s character, named Kid, as a younger child. She speaks of a great avenger who fights for the people against their abusers, leaving no villain left standing. Kid takes that message to heart, with the moral of the story being further burned into his psyche after his village is destroyed and his mother is murdered at the hands of the power hungry Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande). With the ball passed to his side of the court throughout his entire adult life, Kid rises through the ranks of the criminal underworld to get closer to his targets. There’s no room for anything in his life besides revenge, which he will get at any cost.

Patel lays on a thick layer of brutality to every image and interaction within Monkey Man. There is no light at the end of this tunnel, nor is there one at any of the stops along the way. There are multiple instances where Kid gets swept up in his rage, often caused by flashbacks to the night where he lost everything. And when he does let out the beast, the results are gnarly. The choreography is rougher around the edges than the John Wick films, with the camera pulled in tight and tumbling around with the actors. It’s a little bit closer to the Raid films from Indonesia, always daring you to ask how no one was severely injured performing these stunts (Patel did break his hand and toes).

But like its mostly silent main character, Monkey Man is a better film when it opts for action over words. Co-writing with Paul Angunawela and John Collee, Patel infuses brushes of social commentary into his tale of bloody violence. I’ll admit, I’m not well-versed in the culture of India, so there may have been a few (or several) ideas that went over my head. But much of it also feels surface-level, churning out a very similar story of the poor underdogs versus the rich aggressors. Baba Shakti isn’t much of a compelling villain, nor are his underlings Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar) and Rana (Sikandar Kher).

Yes, the action covers most of these problems, but there comes a point in a two hour movie where there needs to be something else to chew on. That fact goes double once you realize that there’s fewer action set pieces than you would think. Thankfully, Patel does deliver the goods whenever they’re promised. The final twenty-ish minutes rattles your senses with its propulsive camerawork and bone-crunching sound work. Producer Jordan Peele saved this film from the clutches of Netflix, giving audiences the proper way to experience it in a crowded theater.

Hopefully Peele’s investment in Patel leads to more collaborations down the road, specifically with Patel behind the camera. Monkey Man is a solid first outing, with only some minor recalibration required for everything to click just right. Patel has been continually linked to the role of James Bond since Daniel Craig's retirement. Maybe he’d become the first 007 to also direct an entry in the franchise? I kind of like the sound of that.

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