REVIEW – ‘Monkey Man’ is a slick, stylish, entertaining, and brutally violent revenge thriller

Can we just take a moment to appreciate the rise of Dev Patel from that lanky, dorky kid in Slumdog Millionaire and TV’s Skins to the captivating, Oscar-nominated (and BAFTA-winning) leading man he is today? Patel takes another big step forward in his impressive career with his dazzling directorial debut, Monkey Man; a slick, stylish, entertaining, and brutally violent revenge thriller that announces Patel as both a bonafide action star and a remarkably talented director. Is there anything this guy can’t do?

Inspired by the Hindu legend of Hanuman, Monkey Man centres on Kid/”Bobby” (Patel), a down-on-his-luck Indian lad who spends his nights earning cash by doning a gorilla mask and fighting (or, more accurately, being beaten to a pulp) in an underground boxing tournament overseen by bombastic compère Tiger (Sharlto Copley). As a child, Kid watched as his mother (Adithi Kalkunte) was murdered by Rana (Sikandar Kher), a corrupt police chief in cahoots with a league of crooked politicians and a nefarious religious guru Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande) looking to become the country’s next prime minister.

Driven by vengeance, Kid infiltrates a high-roller’s club by securing a job as a waiter with unscrupulous crime boss Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar) in an attempt to get close enough to kill frequent club guests Rana and Baba. But the path to revenge is never a straight line and Kid soon finds himself with a target on his back and in need of further training and more allies to enact his plan. And he’ll find it in the unlikeliest of places.

The concept of a one-man revenge machine is hardly the freshest of ideas, especially after four John Wick films over the last decade. Yes, the comparisons to the chaotic Keanu Reeves franchise will be inevitable. Kid even cheekily references the film at one point. But Patel’s style and direction are more heavily influenced by works like Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill: Volume 1, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, and classic Indian cinema.

While there’s homage at play here, it’s Patel’s deft commitment to mixing in Indian mythology and parallels to modern politics that allows Monkey Man to stand on its own two feet as something entirely fresh and unique. The legend of Hindi deity Hanuman is explained through tableaux of vintage drawings to mirror the journey Kid is undertaking. Patel wisely stops short of casting Kid as the reincarnation of Hanuman, rather the myth merely provides the downtrodden character the strength to find his own power much like the divine monkey.

Given the current political state of Narendra Modi’s India, Patel pulls few punches in his pertinent depiction of a fictional world tainted by corruption, violence, and a caste system that only works in the favour of the rich and powerful. That’s particularly apparent in Patel’s bold choice to use a group of characters known as hijra; India’s equivalent of transgender women. Forced to live underground for fear of persecution, Alpha (Vipin Sharma) and her group of hijra quickly become the guidance and support system Kid so desperately needs.

What’s so impressive about Patel’s inclusion of such a marginalised minority group is how authentic and organic it feels to the film’s broader narrative. This is not just lazy tokenism for the sake of scoring representation and diversity points. There is a rich history of transgenderism within Indian culture rooted in the ideal of a third gender that takes inspiration from the half-male and half-female Hindu deity Ardhanarishvara. In the caste system, Kid and the hijra are on the same low level, allowing for an unexpected connection and kinship that benefits both parties.

Co-written with Paul Angunawela and John Collee, Patel’s screenplay wisely takes its time to introduce the key players and plot points in the first act that will make Kid’s vengeance entirely palpable for the audience. It’s here that we delve into Kid’s rich layers and begin to understand why he’s so hellbent on destroying the group of elites that ruined his life. While Patel may use a few too many flashbacks and the slightly saggy middle act featuring Kid licking his wounds, making new friends, and learning fighting skills grinds the pace to a halt, the final act features some of the most exhilarating action you’ll experience this year.

As Kid ascends the levels of Queenie’s club, we are blessed with an unrelenting wave of stunningly choreographed fight sequences that are as visceral and brutal as action comes. Cinematographer Sharone Meir films these battles so tightly and with such fluid motion that you’ll wonder how the hell they actually achieved certain angles and camera movements. With an onslaught of punches, kicks, and weapon play, it’s all just so giddily enjoyable that several moments elicited applause from my audience. For those who love their action films dripping with bloody violence, this one is for you.

It’s in these moments that Patel showcases his previously untapped ability as an action hero you will want to see succeed. Patel has long been suggested as a potential casting choice for the new James Bond, but that almost feels unnecessary now that he’s created his own culturally relevant interpretation. This could be a potential franchise with boundless possibilities for future chapters. By the closing frames, you’ll definitely want more. Regardless, Patel clearly has a bright future behind the camera, especially in the action movie genre.

With its shrewd mix of societal commentary, bone-crunching violence, and Indian culture, Patel has crafted something both technically impressive and sublimely enjoyable. It’s a loud statement in more ways than one with a pointed message to deliver, but one that’s cleverly hidden amongst so much genuine fun. Patel gives birth to a new kind of action hero the studio system has yet to deliver. Smart, original, savage, and deliciously wild, Monkey Man is a total blast.

Distributor: Universal Studios
Cast: Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley, Pitobash, Vipin Sharma, Sikandar Kher, Sobhita Dhulipala, Ashwini Kalsekar, Adithi Kalkunte, Makarand Deshpande
Director: Dev Patel
Producers: Dev Patel, Jomon Thomas, Jordan Peele, Win Rosenfeld, Ian Cooper, Basil Iwanyk, Erica Lee, Christine Haebler, Sam Sahni, Anjay Nagpal
Screenplay: Dev Patel, Paul Angunawela, John Collee
Cinematography: Sharone Meir
Production Design: Pawas Sawatchaiyamet
Costume Design: Divvya Gambhir, Nidhi Gambhir
Editors: Dávid Jancsó, Tim Murrell, Joe Galdo
Music: Jed Kurzel

Running Time: 121 minutes
Release Date: 4th April 2024 (Australia)

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