Home Tech Monkey Man is a studied execution of the brutal revenge thriller

Monkey Man is a studied execution of the brutal revenge thriller

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You can tell that Monkey Man, Universal and Monkey Paw’s new ultraviolent revenge thriller, is a movie that was gestating for years in writer / director / star Dev Patel’s mind. Through the film’s dizzying, over-caffeinated brawls and its story of a man waging war against a system designed to break him, Patel proudly — and sometimes beautifully — showcases his love for the action genre. The film works as a John Wickian exercise in stylized brutality meant to thrill adrenaline junkies. But its attempt at spinning mayhem and Hindu mythology into commentary on India’s sociopolitical dynamics is more perplexing than powerful.

Loosely inspired by the adventures of Hanuman, the simian demigod who features largely in the Ramayana, Monkey Man is an account of a traumatized, unnamed man’s (Patel) transformation into a vengeful warrior years after the murder of his mother, Neela (Adithi Kalkunte). In the fictional city of ​​Yatana — a bustling metropolis where skyscrapers stand tall and political corruption runs deep — life is a struggle for all but the elites, whose wealth and power make them effectively exempt from the rule of law. 

With job opportunities few and far between, Patel’s scarred loner can only just make ends meet working as “The Beast,” one of many masked fighters pummeling one another in staged, underground matches organized by South African sleazebag Tiger (Sharlto Copley.) Memories of the man’s mother are what gives him the strength to keep pushing, and his survivor’s guilt is what makes him eagerly take beatings in the ring in front of a roaring crowd. But when Patel’s character is presented with an opportunity to strike back at the people who killed his mother and turned his world upside down, he sets out to make them feel his pain.

Monkey Man’s protagonist has deeply personal reasons for wanting revenge. But he and each of the film’s other major players also feel like larger aspects of modern-day Indian society crystalized into characters whose actions are far simpler than the ideas they represent. Crooked police commissioner Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher) and sex trafficker Queenie Kapoor (Ashwini Kalsekar) are ruthless criminals whose penchants for cruelty keep their subordinates in check. But they are also the embodiments of the ruling class who control Yatana, a city meant to be read not just as an analogue for real-world Mumbai but also as a representation of every modern-day Indian city where social stratification and vast economic disparity work in tandem to keep the poor castes trapped in cycles of poverty.

Similarly, Patel’s character is a specific person whose real name we never learn. But that anonymity helps the film frame him as an everyman whose individual struggle is emblematic of the plight of India’s poor. Through one of the movie’s first set pieces — a frenetically edited relay race across Yatana that begins with a pickpocketing — Monkey Man shows you some of how the city’s underclass is able to survive and how starkly their lives contrast with those of people like politically connected celebrity guru Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande).

Faith looms large in the mind of Patel’s hero, who is both haunted and strengthened by memories of his mother regaling him with stories about Hanuman, the inspiration for his fighting persona. But whereas his religiosity is framed clearly as a marker of virtue, Monkey Man awkwardly and half-heartedly tries to use Shakti as a stand-in for India’s right-wing Hindutva movement and the violence it has inflicted upon India’s Muslim and other non-Hindu minorities. 

Monkey Man’s political commentary superficially sets it apart from similar action thrillers like John Wick, which gets verbally namechecked and visually paid homage to at various points throughout the film. But the substance of the commentary — about what makes figures like Shakti dangerous and how people like genderqueer hijra Alpha (Vipin Sharma) are uniquely persecuted — feels thin. And while Monkey Man becomes much more visually experimental as Alpha enters the story, she and the film’s other queer characters are never really developed into three-dimensional people.

As a first-time feature director, Patel shows himself capable of creating scenes that range from pulsing and kinetic to quietly moving as Monkey Man follows the chaotic arc of its hero’s journey. But while Patel demonstrates an impressive understanding of how best to fix the camera on himself, the film’s attempts at dreamily incorporating Hindu mythology into its story are clunky and feel like a convenient way of making Monkey Man seem a bit deeper than it actually is.

In the Ramayana, Hanuman is punished by the god Indra for eating the sun after mistaking it for a succulent mango, and that plot point is reiterated multiple times as Monkey Man plunges its hero deeper into Yatana’s lurid underworld. But despite all of its religious overtones and narrative parallels to the Ramayana, Monkey Man isn’t an interpolation of a story about a deity coming back to life; it’s a movie about an ordinary man turning his rage into action. And while Patel’s character might liken Queenie’s club and Shakti’s towering compound to gleaming fruits in the sky he wants to bite into, in Monkey Man, those mouthfuls come by way of a series of unevenly effective fight sequences that pit the hero against hordes of bloodthirsty goons.

As an actor, Patel was clearly hyped to throw himself face-first into Monkey Man’s set pieces. And some of them, like the exhilarating fight with an ax-wielding brothel owner that comes about halfway through the film, are phenomenal. Patel is also obviously channeling his inner Keanu as he dons a new black-on-black fit meant to telegraph his readiness to maim and kill anyone who tries to stop him from getting to his targets. But while Patel looks every bit the part and sells every single punch, stab, or maim he doles out, very little of Monkey Man’s action feels like something you haven’t seen before in the work of other directors like Chad Stahelski and Lee Jeong-beom. The degree to which Monkey Man’s hurried final act feels like Patel making his own John Wick speaks to his love for this kind of filmmaking and an understanding that fans of this genre often just want to see cool fights.

Monkey Man delivers on that front, which makes it work as Patel’s debut as a full-on action star, and it’s easy to imagine this being just the beginning of his exploring stronger stories down the line.

Monkey Man also stars Pitobash, Sobhita Dhulipala, and Zakir Hussain. The film is in theaters now.

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