April 19, 2024 4:57 pm

Monkey Man
Monkey Man

Monkey Man

Dev Patel pours his entire self into “Monkey Man.” Some comes over the sides and the mix might not always be right but there’s an undeniable passion here that comes through in a genre that too often feels like it came off an assembly line. The writer, producer, star, director, and guy who broke a few bones filming this one name-checked Bruce Lee, Sammo Hung, “The Raid,” Korean action, Bollywood, and much more in his intro, and “Monkey Man” often has that overstuffed quality of a filmmaker who finally got his chance to see his visions on-screen and worried he may never get to do so again. With an insanely troubled production that started pre-Covid—Patel credited producer Jordan Peele with “saving” the film—there’s something miraculous about the existence of “Monkey Man,” and that unabashed passion can be contagious. When “Monkey Man” is humming, it earns those references in Patel’s intro. When it falters, those missteps can be forgiven as byproducts of the filmmaker’s unbridled desire to stand out from the other action movie primates.

Inspired by the legend of Hanuman, “Monkey Man” stars Patel as an unnamed fighter named ‘Kid’ in the credits. In the ring, he wears a gorilla mask and fights for money from a sleazy promoter played by Sharlto Copley. He is beaten most nights of the week, getting extra cash if he bleeds. With his deeply scarred hands and silent countenance, the Kid may not look like the strongest guy in the room, but Patel uses those incredibly expressive eyes early to convey drive. This young man has a goal. Nothing will stop him.

Through an act of thievery, the kid gets a job working at an exclusive club that attracts the most important power players in the city, including political leaders and the chief of police (Sikandar Kher) who destroyed his life. Faces in the supporting cast start to recur like a beautiful club worker (Sobhita Dhulipala) and a reluctant ally of sorts who gets caught up in the plan (Pitobash), but this is Patel’s movie. His character—in present or flashback—is in nearly every scene as we chart his ascendance from ordinary guy to killing machine.

On that last note, those coming to “Monkey Man” looking for non-stop action may be a little surprised by its structure. It’s basically a lengthy set-up followed by a lengthy action sequence, and then repeat. Other than the fight scenes and a lot of training, there are really only two action sequences in “Monkey Man,” but they’re worth the build-up. Patel has taken action templates from around the world and infused them with an insane brutality not often seen in films with a Hollywood studio logo. “Monkey Man” is bloody and intense. Bones break, blood spurts, and you feel the connection in ways you don’t often in action lately—even the good stuff has gone more “highly-choreographed” like “John Wick” or “Mission: Impossible.” While the choreography here is still phenomenal, there’s a sweaty, improvised quality to it that adds to its kinetic thrust. It’s impossible to look away or know what’s coming next. And credit to editors David Jancso & Tim Murrell and cinematographer Sharone Meir, who keeps his camera loose and fluid, almost like another fighter in the room.

While the action is impeccable, the film falters in other places. There are clearly political subtexts that others with more knowledge will be able to write and I couldn’t pretend to comprehend, but you don’t need to know the history or current troubles of India to tell that Patel the writer might have bitten off more than anyone could chew. Religion, mythology, equal rights, politics—it’s all woven through this story in a way that can feel clunky even to those who don’t know the details. And Patel returns far too often to the flashbacks, using them as emotional ballast when he feels like the audience might be drifting between the action scenes. It’s funny because it almost feels like Patel the Director doesn’t trust Patel the Actor enough, putting so many flashbacks in to justify his mission. We can see the fearless drive in Patel’s body language and learn so much just from his eyes, which convey both the pain of memory and a commitment to vengeance at the same time.

While Patel’s editing team nails the fight sequences, there are parts of the non-action segments that feel unnecessarily hurried too, again trying to compensate in a way that keeps the audience awake when people aren’t getting mutilated. Patel doesn’t need to do that. He’s clearly a talent in front of and behind the camera. I have a feeling “Monkey Man” is going to be huge. And when he knows that he’s going to be able to make second, third, fourth, and beyond movies, he’ll hone that overstuffed storytelling and visual language in a way that could be legendary. “Monkey Man” may be an origin story for a future action franchise character, but it feels more to me like an origin story for a future action star and director.

This review was filed from the SXSW Film Festival. It opens on April 5th.

Dev Patel pours his entire self into “Monkey Man.” Some comes over the sides and the mix might not always be right but there’s an undeniable passion here that comes through in a genre that too often feels like it came off an assembly line. The writer, producer, star, director, and guy who broke a few bones filming this one name-checked Bruce Lee, Sammo Hung, “The Raid,” Korean action, Bollywood, and much more in his intro, and “Monkey Man” often has that overstuffed quality of a filmmaker who finally got his chance to see his visions on-screen and worried he may never get to do so again. With an insanely troubled production that started pre-Covid—Patel credited producer Jordan Peele with “saving” the film—there’s something miraculous about the existence of “Monkey Man,” and that unabashed passion can be contagious. When “Monkey Man” is humming, it earns those references in Patel’s intro. When it falters, those missteps can be forgiven as byproducts of the filmmaker’s unbridled desire to stand out from the other action movie primates. Inspired by the legend of Hanuman, “Monkey Man” stars Patel as an unnamed fighter named ‘Kid’ in the credits. In the ring, he wears a gorilla mask and fights for money from a sleazy promoter played by Sharlto Copley. He is beaten most nights of the week, getting extra cash if he bleeds. With his deeply scarred hands and silent countenance, the Kid may not look like the strongest guy in the room, but Patel uses those incredibly expressive eyes early to convey drive. This young man has a goal. Nothing will stop him. Through an act of thievery, the kid gets a job working at an exclusive club that attracts the most important power players in the city, including political leaders and the chief of police (Sikandar Kher) who destroyed his life. Faces in the supporting cast start to recur like a beautiful club worker (Sobhita Dhulipala) and a reluctant ally of sorts who gets caught up in the plan (Pitobash), but this is Patel’s movie. His character—in present or flashback—is in nearly every scene as we chart his ascendance from ordinary guy to killing machine. On that last note, those coming to “Monkey Man” looking for non-stop action may be a little surprised by its structure. It’s basically a lengthy set-up followed by a lengthy action sequence, and then repeat. Other than the fight scenes and a lot of training, there are really only two action sequences in “Monkey Man,” but they’re worth the build-up. Patel has taken action templates from around the world and infused them with an insane brutality not often seen in films with a Hollywood studio logo. “Monkey Man” is bloody and intense. Bones break, blood spurts, and you feel the connection in ways you don’t often in action lately—even the good stuff has gone more “highly-choreographed” like “John Wick” or “Mission: Impossible.” While the choreography here is still phenomenal, there’s a sweaty, improvised quality to it that adds to its kinetic thrust. It’s impossible to look away or know what’s coming next. And credit to editors David Jancso & Tim Murrell and cinematographer Sharone Meir, who keeps his camera loose and fluid, almost like another fighter in the room. While the action is impeccable, the film falters in other places. There are clearly political subtexts that others with more knowledge will be able to write and I couldn’t pretend to comprehend, but you don’t need to know the history or current troubles of India to tell that Patel the writer might have bitten off more than anyone could chew. Religion, mythology, equal rights, politics—it’s all woven through this story in a way that can feel clunky even to those who don’t know the details. And Patel returns far too often to the flashbacks, using them as emotional ballast when he feels like the audience might be drifting between the action scenes. It’s funny because it almost feels like Patel the Director doesn’t trust Patel the Actor enough, putting so many flashbacks in to justify his mission. We can see the fearless drive in Patel’s body language and learn so much just from his eyes, which convey both the pain of memory and a commitment to vengeance at the same time. While Patel’s editing team nails the fight sequences, there are parts of the non-action segments that feel unnecessarily hurried too, again trying to compensate in a way that keeps the audience awake when people aren’t getting mutilated. Patel doesn’t need to do that. He’s clearly a talent in front of and behind the camera. I have a feeling “Monkey Man” is going to be huge. And when he knows that he’s going to be able to make second, third, fourth, and beyond movies, he’ll hone that overstuffed storytelling and visual language in a way that could be legendary. “Monkey Man” may be an origin story for a future action franchise character, but it feels more to me like an origin story for a future action star and director. This review was filed from the SXSW Film Festival. It opens on April 5th. Read More