Review of Monkey Man: Dev Patel’s horror-themed feature debut delves far into the macabre.

By Gita Samanta Mar21,2024
Review of Monkey Man: Dev Patel's horror-themed feature debut delves far into the macabre.Review of Monkey Man: Dev Patel's horror-themed feature debut delves far into the macabre.

The story of Monkey Man, which stars actor-turned-writer-director Dev Patel, is a troubled one; for the title character, it’s a slog of trauma, oppression, and wrath that turns into revenge in the filthy fight clubs of an Indian slum. Years of work went into getting Patel’s passion project, which was his directorial debut, on screen. Before Covid, production was under way in Batam, Indonesia. From there, as Patel put it at the film’s SXSW premiere on Monday night, “everything that could go wrong, did”—delays, film purgatory, a distribution agreement with Netflix that derailed the goal of seeing his highly anticipated action movie debut in theaters.

Then Jordan Peele arrived, believing the film was worthy of a large screen release. Thanks to his production company’s agreement with Universal, he saved the film from the straight-to-streaming grave and arranged for a theatrical distribution. He is working with material that is worthy of a big screen, including a bustling slum in a large fictional Indian city, a revenge story inspired by a centuries-old Hindu legend, and trauma stemming from actual state-sanctioned violence.

Review of Monkey Man: Dev Patel's horror-themed feature debut delves far into the macabre.
Review of Monkey Man: Dev Patel’s horror-themed feature debut delves far into the macabre.

The experience of seeing Monkey Man is almost entirely devoid of thrill; even at its hero’s triumphant moments, the nearly two hours of the movie are almost unrelentingly gloomy. Most of Patel’s Kid is spoken in silence; he is either steeled against an almost-army of people who are prepared to kill him mercilessly or tormented by memories of his mother’s (Adithi Kalkunte) horrifying murder during an attack on the village. This is a dark, brutal revenge movie, with a plot that emphasizes talent over atonement.

In the imaginary Indian city of Yatana, Kid starts the movie as the underdog, crushed by the forces of governmental corruption and the fighters of an underground ring headed by the skeevy white dude Tiger (Sharlto Copley). Kid dons a gorilla mask and is beaten to a pulp for money. (Patel has a tendency to make very realistic movies; the ring appears to be underground since it is dark and full of Earthly fragments.)

Motivated by the Hindu monkey god Hanuman and a rage that nearly consumes his entire being, Kid hatches a plot to enter the high-flying world of corruption, where he and innumerable other impoverished people have been harmed in the name of power: The manager of an upscale brothel, Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar), is icy cold; corrupt policeman Rana (Sikandar Kher).

a politically motivated teacher who also wields authority, disguising his land grabs as spiritual knowledge. Alphonso (Pitobash), a street hustler, and Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala), a seductive escort at Queenie’s club who attracts Kid’s attention and isn’t given any characterization other from having a tattoo suggesting a rural upbringing, are two of the sidekicks.

In the somewhat perplexing middle section of the movie, Kid is recovering in the hijra, an outcast group of warriors who identify as “third-gender” (trans women, gender nonconforming), who raise and develop him into a hyper-competent person. (I must admit that I learned it from the press notes; Hinduism is mentioned frequently.)

A Hollywood action movie about Indian subcultures and state politics that most people, including myself, would probably not understand. It is safe to assume, however, that the movie, which at one point seems to cut real news footage of sectarian violence in India with action sequences, is denouncing that violence in the name of Hindu nationalism.)

Monkey Man is a great game for those who can handle intensely targeted retaliation and extremely detailed and visceral hand-to-hand fighting. Patel has a remarkable grasp of both the fighter’s upsetting experience and the rhythm of the electrical wires in the slum.

Less so was the narrative’s texture and communication, which were supplied by a rote screenplay that was co-written by Paul Angunawela and John Collee. Akin to John Wick, Kid is not your typical gregarious action hero. He is influenced by a number of iconic films, including as Bruce Lee, Bollywood, Korean revenge action, and the 2011 Indonesian thriller The Raid. Even when he turns into a (convincing) killer, Patel is still incredibly charming and pitifully likable, but there’s a maddening lack of depth to Kid outside of his purpose, trauma, and opponent.

Nevertheless, Monkey Man delivers some cinematic treats: any scene in the streets, as well as an early scene in which the Kid is communicating his people’s chain of command, crackles; Patel’s attempts to mimic the Kid’s perspective as he learns to fight and kill—rapid edits, blurred vision, and a constantly rotating camera—give the action an immersive and vertiginous, if occasionally tiresome, momentum. His use of Hollywood action, gritty character drama, and TV soap opera is sometimes disorienting.

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