Monkey Man film poster and movie review

Movie Reviews

Monkey Man

Reviewed by:
Luke Bonanno on April 4, 2024

Theatrical Release:
April 5, 2024

Seasoned young actor Dev Patel undergoes a baptism by fire here, making his writing, producing, and directing debuts with a well-stretched $10 million budget and seemingly infinite amounts of ambition.

Running Time121 min

RatingR

Running Time 121 min

RatingR

Dev Patel

Dev Patel (story & screenplay); John Collee, Paul Angunawela (screenplay)

Dev Patel (Kid), Sharlto Copley (Tiger), Pitobash (Alphonso), Vipin Sharma (Alpha), Sikandar Kher (Rana), Adithi Kalkunte (Neela), Sobhita Dhulipala (Sita), Ashwini Kalsekar (Queenie), Makrand Deshpande (Baba Shakti), Jatin Malik (Young Kid), Zakir Hussain (Tabla Maestro)


Monkey Man (2024)

by Luke Bonanno

As an actor, Dev Patel has been at the center of some of the best and worst filmmaking of the past twenty years, from Slumdog Millionaire and Lion to The Last Airbender and Chappie. Those varied high-profile credits have now pushed Patel into the unusual position of getting to direct a feature film just barely into his thirties. Patel seizes that rare opportunity, making a splash with Monkey Man, a stylish, creative, and extremely violent action thriller set in India in which he also stars.

Our mostly unnamed hero (Patel) spends his nights getting beat up in a gorilla mask for a handful of cash in seedy, rowdy underground bare-knuckle brawls. In one of several early arresting sequences, the protagonist choreographs an elaborate sleight of hands that puts him in possession of the wallet of the affluent “Queen of Kings” (Ashwini Kalsekar), a wealthy but unscrupulous businesswoman who manages the Mumbai club that is a lucrative hotspot for criminal activity. Returning the wallet as a Good Samaritan, the fighter turns down a reward but makes an impassioned case for employment, which he gets, starting at the bottom of the joint, washing floors and dishes.

In underground bare-knuckle boxing matches, kid (dev patel) sports a gorilla mask.

From there, our lead figures out how to exact the revenge he has long been formulating, as the specifics of past wrongs take their time to come to light. The planned vengeance targets the corrupt leaders who took our hero’s beloved mother from him decades earlier.

Impressively and elaborately staged from square one, Monkey Man raises the obvious question of “Where is this coming from?” Patel is a fine young actor, as professionally seasoned in film as any 33-year-old with enough earned goodwill to weather his nearly-forgotten misses. But up until now, he’s been on-camera talent and just about never in anything that would prompt a journalist to question him about stunts. And yet, Patel undergoes a baptism by fire here, making his writing, producing, and directing debuts with a well-stretched $10 million budget and seemingly infinite amounts of ambition.

Patel found an influential champion in Jordan Peele, who using his tailor-made Monkeypaw Productions acquired the independently-produced film from Netflix to secure a theatrical release at Universal Pictures. Monkey Man gets that tonight, when it opens in over 3,000 theaters to some of 2024’s best reviews. The raves are largely warranted, as the film is practically spellbinding in its first hour, thanks to the striking cinematography of Sharone Meir (Whiplash) and Patel’s ability to present action in a fresh and vibrant way. The energy and invention on display here is something you expect of a veteran visual storyteller. When John Wick breathed life into the action genre a decade ago, there were veteran stunt coordinators at the helm in Chad Stahelski and David Leitch. Patel may have a fundamentally different history than that duo, but he seems to appreciate their approach. Wick is literally name-dropped within and recalled throughout.

Veteran actor dev patel makes his behind-the-camera debut as writer, director, producer and star of "monkey man. "

Where Monkey Man differs from the Keanu Reeves franchise is also where it comes up a little short in comparison. Reeves’ quiet, deadly hero is established early and often as a legendary “Boogeyman”, someone who kills and cannot be killed. The hero of Monkey Man emerges as the same kind of lethal force, but less believably so. We’re apparently meant to believe that a few hours of punching a suspended bag of rice to the encouragement of a nodding tabla player transforms our protagonist into this otherworldly prophet who while often outnumbered is never outclassed. When in doubt, Monkey Man can just knock someone out with a killer roundhouse kick or break the right bones to sideline a threat. Obviously, escapism is central to the action genre’s appeal and it doesn’t take an Oliver Stone to question the realism of the John Wick movies. But Monkey Man‘s formulaic finale, inspired by yesteryear icons like Bruce Lee and Sylvester Stallone, undermines the effective world-building the film commits to in its first 80 or so minutes.

Having acknowledged that, it is worth noting that Monkey Man distinguishes itself from the Wicks and Rambos of the cinema world by infusing itself with cultural specificity and spirituality. The title is not taken from the killer 1969 Rolling Stones song or even Patel’s character’s boxing mask, which looks more like an ape than a monkey. It pertains more directly to the Hindu deity Hanuman, which the protagonist learned about in childhood from his mother. This aspect of the film requires either blind acceptance or unexpected wisdom from the typical American moviegoer. I won’t pretend it resonated with me, but I appreciate that Patel and his co-writers John Collee (Hotel Mumbai) and Paul Angunawela (Keith Lemon: The Film) have attempted to ascribe deeper meaning to the punching and shooting this inevitably unfolds with. The screenplay also explores the poverty that pervades India, a country that neither Patel nor his parents ever lived but to which all are obviously linked. Patel’s breakout film, Danny Boyle’s masterful 2008 Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire, of course did a significantly better job of intertwining plot and place, but there is social consciousness and empathy to Patel’s directorial debut which are hard to miss and easy to appreciate.

Dev patel's "monkey man" dials intensity and violence up to eleven, particularly in its latter portions.

It should be clear by now that Monkey Man gives us more to process and dissect than your typical hard-R bloody action film, your typical mainstream April release, and your typical filmmaker debut. It is interesting to contemplate the effect that this production, which was nearly cancelled during the pandemic and took some extreme measures to complete, has on the careers of Patel and Peele, on the action genre, and in the creative opportunities afforded to seasoned young actor. All of that probably depends on how the acclaimed Monkey Man is received by the public. The film is expected to gross around $15 million domestically this weekend, vying with fellow opener The First Omen for second place behind last week’s powerhouse Godzilla x Kong.

Compared to the $80 million the Godzilla movie pulled in last week, $15 M may sound trivial, but it would be a substantial haul for something that was destined to debut as simply “Netflix content.” Would success here pull Patel from his respected, varied acting path into action movie stardom or full-time feature filmmaking? It’s tough to predict with any certainty, but as someone who has appreciated his work for over fifteen years now, I am grateful for his continued relevance, appreciative of his mostly foray into filmmaking, and excited for his future endeavors, whatever they might be.

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