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MOVIE REVIEW: A cynical hero’s journey, ‘Monkey Man’ is an impressive debut by Dev Patel as a director

It’s such a confident, purposeful directorial vision for the first-time director.

There was a peculiar realization to watching the trailer of ‘Monkey Man’ on the big screen that made me a little nervous about watching the film. When I first saw the film’s trailer on social media, I watched it in the little screen of my phone and found the visuals absolutely stunning. The gritty images compounded by the dark color schemes that are suddenly punctuated by bright flashes of light or color; the hard-hitting action scenes that is amplified by the fast-cuts and stirring use of music: I was spellbound by what I saw and couldn’t wait for the release. But the moment I saw the same trailer on the big screen, something was diminished. The shots were so close to their subject, everything was in extreme close-up, the power that was emanating from my cellphone screen was gone in the big screen.

When I finally saw ‘Monkey Man’ in the big screen, it has a similar effect, but it creates a tension in the film that somehow adds to its magic. 

Directed and co-written by Oscar nominated actor Dev Patel, ‘Monkey Man’ is the story of a man who is hell bent in taking revenge for the destruction of his home and the murder of his mother. Patel (with co-writers Paul Angunawela and John Collee) follow a sort of mold of revenge films that creates context through its relentless violence. On the top of my head, I can think of films like ‘Kill Bill Part One’ (as I’ve not seen Part Two), the first ‘John Wick,’ and just recently ‘Boy Kills World’ that represents this genre of moviemaking. The story starts with the Monkey Man, who earns a living fighting in an underground fight club wearing a monkey mask (hence the name), already making his moves to take down the corrupt chief of police, Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher), who beat his mother and set her on fire while his men torched his village.

The film takes its time to show us Monkey Man’s motivations, showing us just flashes of imagery triggered by sights and sounds that he experiences on his path of vengeance. He discovers that Rana (and his boss) frequents a high-end brothel called Kings. He makes his way to find work there and get inside so he can get closer and closer to his target. Along the way, his mission allows him to witness the harsh class disparity between the rich and the poor in the city of Yatana, and how the elite class has corrupted the city with their greed, drugs, corruption, and prostitution. Through his journey, he will see the growing popularity of a populist leader disguising himself as a spiritual guru rallying the people to his side while the marginalized groups are harassed and abused much like the farmers of Monkey Man’s home and another set of outcasts: a transgender community living in a temple.

The extreme close ups I was complaining about runs rampant through this film and it gives a sense of claustrophobia and an absence of scale and size, for a film that has such large themes adjunct to its main story. And that’s when I realized, as the film goes on, and Monkey Man’s purpose seems resolute and single-minded in its fury, that the film’s framing of this world is so tiny because the protagonist’s on view is so small. He can only see his revenge.

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Patel wanted to create an action thriller with a lot more to offer, including his own culture, and he does in droves. He opens his film with a story of Hanuman, a deity who appears in the shape of a monkey. The imagery and his stories are interspersed into the narrative and Monkey Man takes on this mantle, but he does not envision himself as the hero that a film in this genre may set him up to be. It’s all there, really. But, no, Patel infuses Monkey Man with such a ferocious, singular desire and that’s for revenge. It’s why I feel the camera does not open up. It’s why the social commentary this film makes about the corruption and brokenness of Indian society – in the reality created by the film – never feels addressed or judged. It’s there. It’s present. It causes such suffering, but the film only merely follows Monkey Man.

It’s such a confident, purposeful directorial vision for the first-time director. There’s such a wonderful texture that he creates on screen with the juxtaposition of the worlds of the rich and poor – the neon, luxurious excess of the brother Kings and how it compares to the alleys and side streets that Monkey Man escapes too when it all gets too much. At one moment, you’re listening to dance music from the club and the next moment, you are watching a hard-hitting fight scene to heavy metal music. I’m not an expert in South Asian films or the Bollywood aesthetic but from the little I know; the indulgence of style is heavy in this film and I’m all for it.

It’s visceral experience that revels in its blood and gore with no real intent for redemption or grace or reason. ‘Monkey Man,’ as a movie, is a sort of cynical and jaded hero’s journey with no real catharsis waiting for you at the end. It’s a hell of a ride if you’re up to it. 

My Rating:



Monkey Man is now showing. Check screening times and buy tickets here.

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Monkey Man
Action, Thriller
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