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Review: ‘Monkey Man’s potential is mired by circumstance

‘Monkey Man’ is visually chaotic at times, but still delivers an appealing tale of revenge and redemption

A scene from 'Monkey Man'
A scene from 'Monkey Man' courtesy of Universal Pictures
A scene from 'Monkey Man' courtesy of Universal Pictures

‘Monkey Man’ is visually chaotic at times, but still delivers an appealing tale of revenge and redemption.

The action genre landscape has evolved in recent years to showcase fast-paced, non-stop, hard-hitting battles that occur in any setting and use any manner of weapon. Yet, action films have a long history of hero-building and justice-seeking that spotlights a protagonist’s journey as they grow into the person they need to be to succeed in the ultimate test of their strength and commitment. It’s often a hard road filled with pain and setbacks, making the final fight about much more than just survival. In Monkey Man, a young man finds a greater purpose than his own personal vendetta.

Kid (Dev Patel) lacks a sense of self-worth. As a child, he was inspired by his mother’s tales of Hanuman, the Hindu legend of a divine monkey that symbolises strength and courage, and also warns against the abuses of uninhibited power. Now, he wears an ape mask in the ring where he plays the heel and takes a bloody beating from the show’s stars. But he’s simply biding his time until he can take his revenge on the corrupt society that destroyed his childhood. When he eventually realizes he is not the system’s only victim, his mission gains an even greater purpose that extends beyond a personal crusade.

Patel co-wrote the film, which is also his directorial debut. Regrettably, the production was plagued by a series of unfortunate events: from the pandemic that forcibly moved the shooting location from India to Indonesia to the star’s broken bones to the loss of various crew members, including the John Wick stunt crew, and the picture’s distributor. Still, producer Jordan Peele believed in Patel’s vision, signing the film to his production company. But there are some issues too difficult to overcome. Nonetheless, the movie demonstrates a lot of potential in its storytelling as it tackles universal issues related to police and religious corruption, brutality, discrimination, and violence against women and other minorities.

At its heart, Patel set out to tell an underdog story. The narrative’s villains are society’s elite, from the prestigious police chief (Sikandar Kher) to a high-end trafficker (Ashwini Kalsekar) in sex and drugs to the country’s faith leader (Makrand Deshpande) to the self-serving ring announcer (Sharlto Copley). Signs of poverty and inequity are everywhere from the families sleeping on the street to the crowded floor Kid shares with other labourers. The country’s transgender community, a.k.a. hijra, also play a prominent role in the picture, shunned by society, yet welcoming to other outcasts in need of help. It’s in this environment that Kid learns he’s fighting for more than his own retribution.

The film’s promotion advertised a high-octane action picture and while there are some very intense fight sequences, the film is the underdog’s journey to revenge and redemption. Unfortunately, even though the story is solid and universally accessible, the action scenes suffer from frenetic camera movements and frenzied editing that make them difficult to watch. It immediately feels reminiscent of Crank, but without the benefit of a gimmick. Instead, the lack of focus feels disorienting and detracts from the unquestionable effort that went into choreographing the otherwise impressive skirmishes.

Patel’s first turn behind the camera is far from perfect, but one hopes he’ll have another chance under better circumstances.

Director: Dev Patel
Starring: Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley and Pitobash

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Sarah Gopaul is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for film news, a member of the Online Film Critics Society and a Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer-approved critic.

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