Film reviews and more since 2009

Monkey Man (2024) review

Dir. Dev Patel

By: Steve Pulaski

Rating: ★★

When watching the stylized hand-to-hand combat scenes in Dev Patel’s Monkey Man unfold on the big screen, it’s almost saddening to think that the film was nearly going to be a Netflix original. But Netflix didn’t know what they acquired for $30 million, and once they saw the final product, they came close to cancelling its release outright. Enter Jordan Peele, whose production company Monkeypaw obtained the film’s rights from Netflix and optioned it as a theatrical release.

Dev Patel went to hell and back to get his directorial debut made, fighting the complications of the pandemic, a broken hand during shooting, and a studio’s increasing doubts about the product. Tis pity Monkey Man gets crushed under the simultaneous weight of its lofty yet underdeveloped ideas and only sporadically satisfying action set-pieces. Evident in the heady material is the thought that Patel operated as if this would be the only time he’d ever be allowed behind the camera to helm his own pet project. This shouldn’t be the case. He has the talent and visionary acumen to be trusted with future works, as they both shine through despite the underwhelming nature of his first attempt at bat.

Patel — who co-produced and co-wrote the film too — plays a steely-eyed man known only as “Kid.” When he was actually a child, he lived deep in the forests of India with his single mom, who read him stories of Lord Hanuman, a monkey deity. His land was eventually stolen by a greedy property developer and a corrupt police chief (Sikander Kher), his mother killed in the process. Now an adult, Kid is hungry for revenge. He infiltrates the Indian mob and earns money by suiting up as his alter-ego “Monkey Man” in a bare-knuckle boxing ring (emceed by a scene-chewing Sharlto Copley).

Patel’s influence is clear, even without the unnecessary and vaguely self-conscious reference to it early in the film. This is Patel’s John Wick crossed with the neon visual stylings of Nicolas Winding Refn. Rather than settling for wall-to-wall combat, Patel and cowriters Paul Angunawela and John Collee opt to make this story a character study about a broken man trying to find justice in a world that is predicated on corruption. Thrown into the mix is sociopolitical commentary related to the nationalist rein of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, which has seen individual rights and freedom of expression lessened over the last 10 years.

The problems with Monkey Man is its ambition isn’t complimented by its execution. It starts off on an awkward foot, thrusting us into this underbelly of India with little development. It hurls flashbacks, religious symbolism, and long, lingering shots on the grotesque levels of urban poverty at the audience with a reckless abandon. It gets us lost in the world before we even find our footing. As the film marches forward, its message becomes muddled by the opaque outlines of commentary that suggest the culmination of Patel’s beliefs and opinions on the current state of Indian cannot adequately be summarized with one film.

It doesn’t help that there’s a deficit of other reliable characters. Early on, the film suggests that a prostitute (Sobhita Dhulipala) might play a role in Kid’s exploits, but her presence is confined to a mere handful of scenes that only afford her the opportunity to recite a couple poetic lines before disappearing into the shadows.

If it’s the action you came to see, Monkey Man does deliver on some level. One of the more realistic aspects of the fight sequences is that Kid’s graduation from boxing in a confined setting to the real world is slow and hindered by some rookie mistakes. He is sloppy with his punches, and at one point, humorously tries to jump through a glass window only to end up like a bird whose flight is derailed by a skyscraper. His maturation process, like the combat sequences, would’ve been more fun to watch had they not been interrupted by pervasive flashbacks and other weightless digressions.

Dev Patel’s acting abilities have never been a question. In fact, as The Green Knight showed, they’ve only improved, and his character here affords him the opportunity to be pensive, brooding, and physical. In his monkey mask and outfit, he’s uncontrollably manic and brutal. Different sides of his talents are showcased both behind and in-front of the camera. They simply don’t coalesce into a feature that’s clear enough in its messaging nor cogent enough in its plotting, rendering Monkey Man an ambitious failure.

NOTE: Monkey Man is now playing exclusively in theaters.

Starring: Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley, Pitobash, Vipin Sharma, Sikander Kher, Sobhita Dhulipala, and Ashwini Kalsekar. Directed by: Dev Patel.

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About Steve Pulaski

Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!

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