The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

The Student Newspaper of DePaul University

The DePaulia

“Monkey Man” review: An action movie with a very bloody heart

Preciosa Ríos

Most first time filmmakers start small, providing themselves the space to experiment while figuring out how to really make a movie. This was not the case for Dev Patel.

From the cruelty of sex trades that prey on young women, to indigenous people being ousted from their homes because of dubious religious claims, to underground animal-themed boxing arenas, to a battalion of transgender sword fighters decked out in bedazzled saris, the ambition and scale of Patel’s first movie explodes onto the screen. If you got confused reading the previous sentence, that’s how it feels watching the film itself: it may be a bit hard to follow, but it all sounds really cool, right?

Sporting some thrillingly kinetic action sequences, Dev Patel’s “Monkey Man” pushes through a choppy narrative by pure virtue of heart. Even when it may be hard to tell exactly what’s going on and why, you feel the passion behind the camera and in front of it. 

“Monkey Man” follows a boy known only as Kid (Patel), as his mother (Adithi Kalkunte) is killed when his jungle village is burned to the ground by the deceitful religious leader Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande) to make room for a new industrial development. Years later, Kid lives by day as a waiter for a criminal brothel and by night as a boxer in an underground fighting ring under the alter ego of Monkey Man. After a run-in with the corrupt police investigator Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher), Kid thrusts himself into a spiritual awakening through a path of brutal revenge as he vows to destroy Baba Shakti once and for all. 

Patel, a long-time character actor known for his roles in “Skins,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” and “Lion,” throws his hat into the directorial ring with an uncharacteristic selflessness for most actors turned directors. Not too dry or self-indulgent, Patel’s performance gives just enough to grant the audience access to Kid’s inner life.

Without laborious exposition, his eyes give the film credibility you cannot buy, capturing a lifetime’s worth of sadness, anger and guilt all within a single teardrop. He and the surrounding cast carry a potentially trite revenge tale into genuine heartbreak and rage without it feeling melodramatic. 

Speaking of rage, the violence here is exquisite. I often have trouble with the dodgy morality of most action films, but “Monkey Man” can ground its bone-breaking fistfights and scintillating knife battles in a framework that wins over the audience. The ethics are cut-and-dry here: the police are the embodiment of evil. Kid and his crew of humble workers are sympathetic and good.

This wins me over when Kid shoves a knife into a goon’s throat by holding the knife with his teeth and headbutting the guy sideways. That’s only a taste of the gleeful, crimson-tinged chaos that Patel can wrangle into some of the most frenetic hand-to-hand combat we’ve seen on the silver screen this year. 

Despite all the fun, it would be remiss of me not to mention the complicated political situation around this film. Originally produced by Netflix, the streamer sold it off to Universal over concerns the film might offend India’s current right-wing government. I am not Indian nor am I educated enough to describe India’s political climate. I recommend Indian critic Siddhant Adlakha’s piece on how exactly the decisions made in the final film muddle the larger message. 

Regardless of what happened behind the scenes, whether it be fear of inciting too much political strife or Patel’s novice status as a director, it is clear a lot of the story is being cut around. The sequences that revolve around the titular Monkey Man are few and far between, and they are treated with gravitas that the rest of the film does not support. This happens to a few different storylines, and it can often lead to moments of “wait, who is that again?” It’s not a deal-breaker, but it leads to a second act that feels a touch disconnected from the other two.

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