Review of Monkey Man

Monkey Man
Monkey Man
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Dev Patel openly displays his inspiration and emotions in Monkey Man. However, his initial attempt as a writer, director, and leading actor contradicts the nominee’s genuine concern with confused politics and weak production. In the category of action revenge films like John Wick to which characters in Monkey Man refer by its name even, Patel’s crime epic set in India is an imitation more than a real fusion both culturally as well as aesthetically. There are beautiful evocative shots that don’t quite gel; and also just as many instances of bone-crunching combat that lose their impact due to sloppy connection.

The term “monkey man” refers to Patel’s impoverished, nameless slum-dwelling fight-throwing character who goes about bare-knuckle brawling while wearing an ape mask. On the other hand, flashbacks from his childhood give a broader religious picture: This persona had been influenced by stories told by his mother (Adithi Kalkunte) about Hanuman, an ape-like demigod and one of the main actors in the Hindu religious text Ramayana whence Monkey Man borrows many plot lines. The protagonist clings onto tales of Hanuman from childhood religious songs and memories of comic books –a recent doorway to Hinduism for young Indian readers- to lead him through acts of benevolence or vigilante retribution.

Through fast paced shooting and editing reminiscent of Danny Boyle movies, Patel ends up with Queenie Kapoor’s (Ashwini Kalsekar) stolen wallet after a relay race involving pickpocketing that occurred within seconds. Her brothel was used as political elites’ hangout situated in Yatana City which can be simply said as Mumbai except for its name only. He gets a menial job at her house —the film has some fleeting thoughts on class inequality—while climbing up the hierarchy towards Queenie’s hidden VIP room hence spinning a tale of revenge. Though it takes almost four-fifths of the two-hour running time to be fully revealed, there are many abstract, fiery remembrances of police brutality. The target is corrupt commissioner Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher), a man in the pocket of revered religious and political figure Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), whose name, quite literally, means power.

This first symptom of Monkey Man’s flawed weaving is a shaky attempt at constructing a political tapestry. Shakti is a half-hearted allegory for India’s current right-wing Hindutva government: There are notes of Modi-esque industrial string-pulling and suggestions that he stands for religious fanatic Yogi Adityanath when one views him up close. His use of religion as a cover-up while for the protagonist his nostalgia was part of what gave him moral strength turning him into an instrument that punishes wrongdoings. But this dynamic misses the mark. Although Shakti hides behind a religious mission to the outside world, Indian fascism satirized by Monkey Man actually believes in Hindu racial supremacy. At the same time, Patel’s character uses language and imagery that uncomfortably align with Hindutva itself– even down to slogans chanted in support on his behalf which echo those used during Muslim lynching such as “Jai Shri Ram”.

A good intention has gone horribly misguided, to put it mildly. (For an American equivalent, imagine if Colin Firth wiped out that church full of right-wing Evangelical extremists in Kingsman, then yelped “Make America great again!”) Flashbacks to the hero’s childhood, and his forest-dwelling community, reveal police incursions and land-stealing that have painful real-world parallels involving India’s Muslims, its tribal communities, and its oppressed castes. However, Patel usurped this stealing to interrupt a marionette performance of the Ramayana, as if Hinduism was under attack. This might be about reclaiming the religion’s iconography from Hindutva talons but Monkey Man using Hanuman as a source for revenge is really confusing. It is like Monkey Man wants to eat its cake and have it applauded.

There are times when you can commend the action. Monkey Man’s cinematic influences lie far outside India – mainly Indonesian martial arts films, Korean ultraviolence, and Bruce Lee movies. The John Wick references are just as obvious in addition to those series’ symbols lighting costumes, and so on and so forth. (Sadly though Patel makes sure that Keanu Reeves’ signature black suit black shirt combo is matched by dark lighting and dark backdrops which obscure key moments of viciousness.)

We see elements of filmmakers such as The Night Comes For Us’ Timo Tjahjanto or Gareth Evans from The Raid in this fight choreography too; quickly paced medium shots that capture close-quarters combat – something rare for Hollywood filmmaking at large. As an emerging action star, however, Patel moves with fluency in motion whilst being emotionally driven with committed physicality yet the overall outcome feels uncanny like Patel the director simply copied math answers without showing his working out. The camera meanwhile erratic throughout follows no specific path instead it rarely slows down to record impact sometimes spinning and rolling literally against any action.

Patel lets his character display an endearing self-deprecating humor. He understands the worth of an action underdog, à la Jackie Chan, but there are also not many fights. One among them involving an ax is a masterpiece and shot crisply. However, it appears at random in the story, existing as a matter of disconnected coincidence rather than a character-driven plot.

The plot also really attempts to check authoritarianism. At one point, he happens upon a group hiding themselves away with a “hijra,” spending some quality time with these fierce yet gentle transgender women on the run from the cops. (A cameo that will confound anyone familiar with Indian classical music ensues.) Monkey Man however includes actual political demonstrations against Modi’s government but strips them of their symbols and de-politicizes them in return.

In India where government censorship is increasingly on the rise, this counts as commendable opposition to sectarian oppression because it will probably result in Monkey Man never having an official release within India itself. But Patel’s own drug-induced dreamlike POV shots venture too far into imagery being weaponized against real people (sometimes in movie theaters). The action always falls short of being intoxicating enough to rise above this ugliness as does S.S.Rajamouli’s RRR which has similar issues though.

The project has a deeply personal feel, from Patel tapping into the action influences of his youth to presenting an Indian setting front and center through a lens of childhood memories. This is also an interesting, self-reflexive flourish that he returns to the Mumbai slums – the backdrop to his most high-profile films, Slumdog Millionaire and Lion. However, despite being born and raised in England, for many years now Patel has been Hollywood’s go-to casting choice for characters hailing from India, and as much as martial arts and a Hindu upbringing factor into Monkey Man, his public persona includes Mumbai.

Therefore, along with starring in Anthony Maras’ dramatization of the 2008 terrorist attacks in the city (Hotel Mumbai), his Indian accent has certainly come a long way since Slumdog; he sounds marginally more authentic as a native Mumbaikar but not quite as much as quippy/comic-relief co-star Pitobash. For instance, placing itself next to Ram Gopal Varma’s gangster sagas like Satya or Company which are among Monkey Man’s vivid lurid portraiture though cultural details are both vague yet over-explained to meet Western gazes.

Nevertheless, Varma too can be a hit-or-miss director: even though fumbled action and politics shadowed Patel’s debut may not serve its death blow regarding career behind the camera. Despite limited thematic coherence or visual rhythm between these shots however atmospheric use of abstraction shows a filmmaker capable of capturing moments like mood or introspection at least. Some of the action builds promise hereabouts monkey man. It doesn’t often result in rousing crescendos or satisfying catharsis.


Dev Patel’s diehard sincerity clashes with unwieldy religious imagery in an India-set revenge saga whose tepid action scenes fail to make up for its muddled politics. His influences are all front and center – The Raid, John Wick, Hong Kong maestro Sammo Hung – but the synthesis of choreography and current events rarely leads to anything rousing or original. Monkey Man is largely imitation, flattery, and cultural facsimile.

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