HomeReviews‘Monkey Man’ Review: A Disappointing Directorial Debut

‘Monkey Man’ Review: A Disappointing Directorial Debut

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Movie Rule #28: Never directly reference a movie that is superior to the one we are watching.

Dev Patel’s disappointing directorial debut Monkey Man breaks this rule in a very distracting way. In an early scene, the film’s unnamed hero, known only as “Kid” (played by Patel himself), talks his way into the showroom of a black market arms dealer. “You like John Wick?” the salesman smirks as he shows off a handgun like the one Keanu Reeves wields onscreen.

Most viewers could have made the comparison to John Wick themselves without the explicit shoutout. Both Wick and Monkey Man are bloody action thrillers about lone warriors with ferocious fighting skills on quests for revenge against insurmountable odds. Flashy though Monkey Man is, most of the resultant comparisons that arise from this line of dialogue are all pretty unflattering.

MONKEY MAN
Universal Pictures

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For one thing, a John Wick film moves. Like their indomitable protagonist, those movies are always pushing forward — to the next fight scene, the next exotic locale, the next inventive use of environmental weaponry. Monkey Man only delivers the action goods intermittently. In between, it idles and pontificates on its murky social and political subtext. Running a slack two hours, it also keeps interrupting its flimsy revenge tale with flashbacks to Patel’s character’s backstory. The nonstop snippets of Kid’s idyllic childhood and its tragic end, when his village was destroyed and his mother was killed, along with numerous digressions about the fictional Indian city where Monkey Man  is set, smother any sense of narrative momentum.

Patel absolutely deserves credit for his ambition here. I’m a fan of any actor who takes matters into their own hands and crafts their own material. In the case of Monkey Man, Patel not only served as director and star; he wrote the movie’s story, co-wrote the script, and co-produced the whole thing to boot. That’s impressive. And Patel the director uses Patel the actor exceeding well. With handsomely tousled hair and laser-focused eyes, he makes an effective leading man and pulls off the film’s frenetic fight scenes with athletic aplomb. If Monkey Man becomes the first of a whole wave of muscular Dev Patel thrillers, it can be considered a success on that basis alone.

But Monkey Man left me far more impressed by Patel’s onscreen presence than his offscreen choices. While Kid’s plan for revenge is fairly simple, Patel’s story sprawls as it ties him to systemic corruption within the Indian government and law enforcement. He lingers endlessly on beautiful shots of the ugliness of urban poverty. He layers Kid’s journey with all kinds of religious symbolism. (The title refers to Kid’s simian alter ego in an underground fight club, inspired by the stories of the Hindu god Hanuman his mother taught him as a child.) Patel is clearly trying to say something about all this stuff, but his precise message beyond the broadest possible strokes about wealth inequality and absolute power corrupting absolutely get lost in the shuffle.

Patel never decided whether he was making an action movie or a socially conscious character study and wound up doing both instead. There are definitely a couple standout fight scenes — although stylistically they’re a lot closer to the shaky handheld chaos of Jason Bourne than the controlled mayhem of John Wick — but there are far more scenes of Patel smoldering silently around his many enemies. The fight club where he absorbs endless beatings for cash while an over-the-top Sharlto Copley plays master of ceremonies doesn’t pay well, so Kid schemes his way into an entry-level job at “Kings,” a private club for privileged elites that rises symbolically out of the Indian slums.

Kid rises too, as he gradually earns the trust of his bosses and works his way up the ladder until he’s serving VIPs in Kings’ penthouse and sidling up to his intended target — a police chief named Rana (Sikandar Kher), who also happens to be the man who killed Kid’s mother. Kings’ clientele’s venal nature is driven home by their callous use of high-priced escorts brought from all over the world to India by the sadistic Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar). Her employees include the beautiful Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala), the only person at Kings who seems to see Kid for who he truly is.

MONKEY MAN
Universal Pictures

Kid’s quest for vengeance takes a couple unexpected detours, but eventually he does get down to business. That sequence doesn’t disappoint, although it does feel like too little too late — a sentiment compounded by the film’s abrupt ending that leaves pretty much all of the aforementioned themes and ideas about broader Indian society left unresolved.

Patel’s desire to make something more than a straightforward action film is admirable, especially since he had to juggle responsibilities in front of and behind the camera simultaneously to do so. Monkey Man suggests he’s got potential as a filmmaker in the future. In the present, his directorial debut is the sort of genre exercise that makes you realize creating a “straightforward” action movie is not so straightforward.

RATING: 5/10

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Content Source: screencrush.com

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