A man wearing a monkey mask is standing inside a boxing ring.

Film Review: Monkey Man


Director: Dev Patel
Thunder Road Films and Monkey Paw Productions
In Theaters: 04.05

In 2008, Slumdog Millionaire took a young, nearly unknown actor named Dev Patel and pushed him into the spotlight. In the decade that followed, through many highs, lows and Hollywood’s tunnel vision mentality on where an Indian actor could fit into mainstream films, Patel has withstood the harsh glare and shined a light of his own that has made him one of the most exciting and interesting actors in the business. While his directorial debut, Monkey Man, is by no means perfect, it shows a potential behind the camera that matches the presence that he has in front of it.

Monkey Man begins with Neela (Adithi Kalkunte, Hotel Mumbai) telling her young son (Jatin Malik) the tale of Lord Hanuman, a revered monkey deity known for his courage and strength. We then see the boy as an adult, identified only as Kid (Patel), participating in an underground bare-knuckle fight, wearing a monkey mask to disguise his face, and taking a beating while surrounded by a cheering crowd as a flamboyant announcer known as Tiger (Sharlto Copley, District 9), eggs them on. Kid remains unfazed no matter how hard he’s knocked down, and It soon becomes clear that he has  a larger purpose to in mind. Kid is immersing himself in a world of absorbing and inflicting pain, and as he works to embed himself in the criminal underworld of the city of Yatana, a tragic story unfolds: his mother was killed and his village was burned to the ground as part of a land grab by a corrupt spiritual leader, Baba Shakti (Makrand Deshpande, Hanan) and Rana Sing (Sikander Kher) the Yatana Chief of Police. Devoting his life to vengeance, Kid works his way into the inner circle of the corrupt to get close to his targets, waiting for the opportune moment to strike. Meanwhile, he trains and plots, knowing that the day of reckoning for those who oppress the lower caste is approaching.

This ultra-violent, action-packed revenge thriller action film draws such inevitable comparisons to John Wick that Patel even includes a direct reference to it: when Kid buys a gun, the peddler tries to use the fact that it’s the one used in those films as a selling point. The brutality and manic energy of the fight sequences are very much in the same vein, with the primary difference being that Monkey Man is much darker and takes itself far more seriously. There’s an element of sociopolitical commentary about the caste system in India, which is easily the most compelling element of the film. Patel, who also co-wrote the screenplay along with Paul Angunawela and John Collee, is ambitious in his desire to give the film some depth with its themes of the oppressive caste system in India and the victimization of ethnic minorities and the the transgender community. 

Patel makes a big impression coming out the gate as a new director, with creative and intricate staging and a lot of visual flair. He’s less successful when it comes to pacing, and the flashback-heavy story structure jumps around too much. Once it starts to really come together in the third act, it plays quite well, though without the tongue-in-cheek sense of humor of John Wick, the relentlessly sadistic and graphic brutality got to be a bit too much for me, overshadowing everything else. There’s a difference between the overtly comic moments of killing someone with a pencil or something equally unusual in John Wick and trying to cheer for a protagonist skewering a villian with a knife to the neck, then biting down of the blade to twist it with his teeth for no particular reason aside from blind rage and perverse enjoyment. Monkey Man becomes too bleak and serious to be fun, yet too focused on action to be entirely successful as anything but yet another badass revenge thriller. 

Patel is excellent in the lead role, bringing a smoldering intensity that’s riveting to watch. Vipin Sharma as Alpha, a transgender woman who saves Kid’s life and supports him in his quest, is the best part of the film, portraying Alpha as a wise and loving protector, the caring and strong leader of a community of outcasts. Deshpande makes an effectively despicable and unnerving villain. Copley isn’t given much of a character, and is mainly in the film because he and Patel clearly bonded white making Chappie (Patel actually tried to get the film’s director, Neil Blomkamp, to helm Monkey Man) and at least Monkey Man is a film far superior to that 2015 travesty. The ensemble is  committed and convincing, and it’s easy to see that if Patel gets a chance to direct a film with more emphasis on characters and less on making each kill more shocking, we could see some amazing performances.

Monkey Man is far too well made—and too promising a directorial debut—to dismiss, and its strengths are praiseworthy. It’s also an uneven mix of high ambition and a willingness to settle for merely being an endless sequence of spilling blood and crunching bones that can’t seem to decide why it’s this violent, and it left me feeling a lot of frustration. It’s most successful as a demo reel for Patel as a director and action star. –Patrick Gibbs

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