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“Monkey Man” is a bloodthirsty thriller that misses its own mark

Dev Patel’s directorial debut is clichéd, engaging and exciting, but lacks conviction in its message

<p>Throughout the film Patel conveys sadness, pain and torment in a way that many action-movie leads cannot.</p>

Throughout the film Patel conveys sadness, pain and torment in a way that many action-movie leads cannot.

Though trailers and reviews might suggest that they are cut from the same cloth, going into “Monkey Man” and expecting another “John Wick” clone would be a mistake. The movie is written and directed by its star, Dev Patel, and is a bloodthirsty action-thriller set in Mumbai that draws on elements of Hindu mythology and present Indian political divides to create a fairly new type of action movie. Visually exhilarating with a confusing, yet incredible, soundtrack, the film was built for its theatrical release. However, its attempt at a meaningful take on social and economic divides felt vague and limited, resulting in a confusing blend of monkey business and lackluster profundity. 

“Monkey Man” tells the story of Patel’s unnamed character, a human punching bag who lives a life of poverty in Mumbai. Fighting in underground competitions for a living, he is motivated only by a desire to avenge the death of his mother who was killed by corrupt police chief Rana Singh — played by Sikandar Kher — when he was forcibly evicting them from their land. Throughout the story, Patel’s struggles are paralleled by the stories of Hanuman, a Hindu monkey deity that symbolizes strength and courage.

Patel shines in the movie. His character, referred to as “Kid” in the credits, is a driven young man intent on revenge. He looks like a natural in longer choreographed fight sequences, and subtly conveys sadness, pain and torment in a way that many action movie leads cannot. Audiences can only hope he is cast — or casts himself — for similarly violent roles in future.

Beyond Patel, the movie has a fairly small cast, with only a handful of characters seeing regular screen time. Of those a few stand out. Indian actors Kher and Vipin Sharma, who plays a transgender woman named Alpha, excel in their respective roles. Additionally, Pitobash as the character of Alphonso is the closest thing the movie has to comic relief —  and the character shows deeper nuance in the latter stages of the story. 

The film is shot and edited with conviction, and in no scene does the camera ever stand still, always swaying or moving, building an eerie and engaging atmosphere even during the most violent of scenes. Before Jordan Peele joined the project as a producer, the April 5 theatrical release the film ultimately received was not in the cards  — instead, it was most likely going to debut on Netflix, where it would have been seen, but not appreciated for the elements that shine on a big screen. 

Though no single sequence stands out, the combat is fluid, choppy and intoxicating. There is a lot of blood, and a number of scenes that left the audience shocked due to the sheer brutality. Alongside the gore, some fights take place in distinctly dirty environments, adding a degree of grittiness to the well-choreographed combat.

What stands out most about the fights, though, is the sheer diversity in sound. Dev Patel said one of his inspirations for “Monkey Man” was the “John Wick” franchise, and its fourth and most recent installment in particular had one part that stood out above all — a prolonged battle in a nightclub with the electronic music and flashing colors overwhelming the audience into an almost trance-like state. 

“Monkey Man” tries to emulate that feeling in one of the first big fight scenes, and while the setting in subsequent fights remains the same, other sequences are tied together using heavy metal music, traditional Indian music or even just a single drum. The variance in rhythm, sound and flow provides depth to otherwise repetitive fight scenes, and is a much more noticeable feat in theaters.

While the movie itself is trying to stand out from other films it drew inspiration from — including “John Wick,” “Oldboy” and “The Raid” — it fails to fully separate from prominent action movie clichés. Audience members let out a noticeable chuckle during what was intended to be a serious scene where Patel looks at his reflection in a mirror and angrily screams — one of many common tropes in more intense movies. 

However, rather than completely ruining the serious tone of the movie, some of these tropes are actually endearing. One such trope is embedded in the disposition of Patel’s character who, similar to the protagonists of many other action movies, is not a skilled or strong fighter, but has a strong conviction and tough demeanor. Patel uses this character trope to encapsulate the political, religious and social divides in India, where vast swaths of people — an idea reflected in the movie — are beat down on by powerful forces. Patel’s character in particular is one that takes a lot of punches, and his ability to find community with other marginalized communities, such as transgender women and poor Mumbai slum residents, is part of the film’s raison d'être — a subtle commentary on rampant social issues in India.

However, it is this very effort at a larger social commentary that is the movie’s downfall, not due to it feeling out of place but rather a lack of intensity in its portrayal. It hopes to take on difficult subjects while also staying action-packed and thrilling, yet fails to balance the two. 

Unlike “John Wick”, which exists for pure entertainment value, “Monkey Man” seeks to have a genuine purpose. It attempts to explore class, trauma and the suffering of the downtrodden strata of Indian society, but it still feels like it only manages to scratch the surface of genuine commentary. This is a result of the film’s reliance on vague insinuations and brief cutaway shots to try and say something impactful.

Packed with cinematic clashes and speaker-worthy sounds, “Monkey Man” is a film meant to be seen on the big screen. Anybody going in blind will be on the edge of their seats for almost all of the film’s just-under-two hour runtime. It is reminiscent of its predecessors in the best of ways and is an adrenaline-packed experience, and despite not fully delivering the message it sought to convey, the action-thriller genre is now one movie better, and the future is bright for director, writer and movie star Patel.

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