Monkey Man Mixes Brutal Violence with Emotion

Dev Patel as the Kid in MONKEY MAN, directed by Dev Patel. © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Monkey Man is a colorful grim comic come to life. It borrows from the best actioners in the recent past to build something familiar yet exotic enough to feel unique. However, some camerawork fails to capture the chaotic energy the film hopes for. Meanwhile, numerous thematic directions pull Monkey Man in every direction possible. This leaves a thrilling story thematically stunted at times, especially given its reliance on generic stock characters. Though that said, when action ensues this gritty picture from first-time director Dev Patel hits like a beast.

The story follows an anonymous protagonist known as the Kid. Played by Dev Patel (The Green Knight), he’s a rage fueled individual with a heartbreaking backstory. The Kid earns a living as a punching bag in an underground fighting arena, while seeking a chance for revenge. When it finally arrives, despite some clever tactics, he’s demolished by the villains he cannot defeat. Recuperating in the care of a marginalized community of hijra, he comes to understand certain higher truths. No longer a vengeful lost child, the Kid becomes a warrior who can crush the wicked.

Street performers in traditional Indian garb create a Hindu multi-arm deity while dancing in a parade in Monkey Man.
Scene from MONKEY MAN. Image courtesy of Universal Studios.

One of the things that makes action in Monkey Man so compelling is the vulnerability of its protagonist. Dev Patel does a marvelous job of creating stakes by not having the hero dominate every situation he enters. We see his bell get rung on more than one occasion. While one could say this narrative conceit owes to a variety of films, the John Wick franchise being the freshest incarnation, where Monkey Man differentiates itself is the narrative nature of combat.

There is purpose and personality in each major fight scene. No matter how action packed, each set piece tells a story. Audiences will easily perceive a difference in the main character between the first and last fights as his personality evolves. The scramble and panic of a novice at the start becomes the cold determination of an experienced warrior on a relentless onslaught. The prospect that he could lose makes every encounter satisfyingly thrilling. Add on some top tier brutal interactions, and Monkey Man excels at action.

The film is largely a cinematic treat. For a first-time director, Dev Patel shows a clarity of vision that stylizes Monkey Man in captivating ways. This is a colorful yet dark world where even the brightest beauty is in some way gritty. There’s also some creative use of tracking shots to tell the wider story of a city. Simply following a pickpocket allows Patel to invite the audience into a complex world of poverty and the varied people struggling for survival. Often Monkey Man wisely lets the camera do the talking, showing details no dialogue could efficiently deliver.

Sweaty and bloody from a fight, the Kid stares through sheer purple curtains in Monkey Man.
Dev Patel as the Kid in MONKEY MAN. Image courtesy of Universal Studios.

Sometimes, though, this results in a stumble or two. Several sequences involving shaky cam takes tend to lose focus. Visuals get lost in the blurry jumble, and rather than feeling frenetic Monkey Man sacrifices potentially captivating action instances and narrative imagery.

That’s a shame especially given the film’s overall cultural inclusion. Besides being inspired by the myth of Hanuman, the movie incorporates a great deal of Indian flare along with South Asian influences. Western elements don’t predominate any aspect of the movie as Monkey Man clearly exists in a world outside that sphere. That easily helps set it apart from other action flicks.

On that note, the movie follows a fabulously minimal script from Dev Patel, Paul Angunawela, and three-time Oscar nominee John Collee (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World). Granted, the story is a standard revenge plot. What differentiates Monkey Man from the majority is its emotional elements. Dev Patel does a stellar job of playing someone consumed by anger, yet breaking as he bottles it up so his plans can reach fruition. Although there’s nothing at all new about the events which unfold, they are done with a minimalism that rarely sacrifices pace and doesn’t indulge in romantic clichés.

A group of high-end prostitutes in glamorous gowns stroll through a nightclub.
Sobhita Dhulipala is Sita (center) in MONKEY MAN. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The middle of the film does turn into a bit of a slog. Frankly, I fell asleep for a minute or two. But once Monkey Man got back on track, it’s an adrenaline rush to wake the comatose.

This is a world where the wicked are winning, and the poor scrape by or die. People aren’t so much criminals as survivalists living by any means necessary. In a way, this sets up a thematic notion of heroism as standing up for the weak as well as one’s own self. However, this classic notion is tangled in a mess of other topics. Monkey Man seeks to touch on topics such as transgender rights, political corruption, classism, the lingering economic exploitations only possible because of colonialism, and toxic rage. All of these are interesting topics, but the film never really explores any with sufficient depth. This shotgun blast of themes can distract from an otherwise thrilling narrative as Monkey Man tries to run in more than one direction at once. Something that its minimalist script can’t handle.

Still, a fabulous international cast does the best they can with the stock characters provided. Pitobash (Million Dollar Arm) is a wonderful bit of comedic relief as Alphonso, but he’s underutilized later in the story. Sikandar Kher (Aarya), Ashwini Kalsekar (Ek Tha Hero), and Makarand Deshpande (RRR) are all solid, but their roles are ultimately generic villains repackaged with Indian cultural elements. Sobhita Dhulipala (Made in Heaven) is interesting as a jaded prostitute named Sita, but the role goes nowhere. Sharlto Copley (District 9) is great as the sleazy operator of an underground fight ring, and so is Vipin Sharma (Taare Zameen Par) as Alpha, who gives the Kid spiritual guidance.

Sleazy promotor of an underground fight ring stands in the ring wearing a suit and too much gold jewelry, while announcing the next fight.
Sharlto Copley in MONKEY MAN. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

The real novelty of Monkey Man is its emotional core and bold displays of Indian heritage. Dev Patel shows that even action films can have complexity thanks to a performance that is fierce, vulnerable, and inspiring. Though some minor missteps occasionally lose stellar visuals, the movie is often a cinematically satisfying watch. Add in a powerful soundtrack and Monkey Man becomes a thrilling adventure full of brutal action.

Written by Jay Rohr

J. Rohr is a Chicago native with a taste for history and wandering the city at odd hours. In order to deal with the more corrosive aspects of everyday life he writes the blog and makes music in the band Beerfinger. His Twitter babble can be found @JackBlankHSH.

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