'Monkey Man' is Rigorously Entertaining, But Its Political Heart Feels Lacking

Dev Patel as 'The Kid' in 'Monkey Man's poster art

Dev Patel as 'The Kid' in 'Monkey Man's poster art

Universal Pictures

Admit it, we’ve all been waiting to call Dev Patel a renaissance man. The incredibly affable British-Indian actor is yet another world-class talent to debut in the teen show Skins and has risen the ranks of respectability from Slumdog Millionaire through Lion, The Personal History of David Copperfield, and The Green Knight – all while harboring an urge to appear behind the camera. Monkey Man has taken five and a half years to get from announcement to premiere, with a pandemic and Netflix-cold-feet-affected production timeline stopping and starting its journey to a theatrical release. 

A streaming-exclusive launch would have hampered Monkey Man – it’s a kinetic, visceral action film that deserves a shared viewing experience – even if the narrative of producer Jordan Peele rescuing the surprise smash hit of the year from the maw of streaming purgatory doesn’t exactly hold water.

Patel stars and co-writes his directorial debut, channeling an elemental charisma into a character only credited as “Kid” on a mission of unfettered vengeance through the higher tiers of corrupt Indian society. The Kid channels the power of Hanuman, a Hindu god with a monkey face and righteous courage, as he infiltrates a high-rolling luxury tower in pursuit of Rana (Sikandar Kher), the cop who murdered his mother Neela (Adithi Kalkunte). The Kid was violently displaced as a child from his Indigenous homeland by brutal cops, which shines a timely spotlight on India’s nationalist past and present as awareness of how ethnic cleansing is central to global history rises.

Even though Monkey Man is rigorously entertaining and a sign that Patel has a talent for a broader genre range than we previously thought, its political heart feels a little lacking. Patel’s venom for the entrenched violence of Hindutva (the contemporary Hindu nationalist movement) is clear, but it’s not enthusiastically explored – the political front is instead positioned as an unambiguous corrupt evil with little attention paid to the nuance of its violence. What history has led to colonial atrocities as seen here? How do you effectively retaliate against it? What are the internal consequences of seeking violent revenge? It’s an urgent facet of Indian politics that shouldn’t be flattened to set dressing of a Western-funded action film.

Monkey Man is not psychologically probing, despite an extensive and de-energized midsection devoted to how the Kid comes to grips with his power. The block colors that light the climactic nightclub fight scenes gesture at stylized neo-noir, but the vast majority of its emotional power lies on the surface. The moody visual palette and energized camerawork emphasize the grit and pain fuelling the story, but there’s the sense that the craft is heightening feelings and ideas that would be ineffectual if not expressed so vibrantly. Monkey Man’s blood and bruises should linger for longer than they do.

One under-drafted vein of the story concerns high-class escorts that are funneled through rich, corrupt hands, exemplified through a single character, Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala), who spends her scenes in close proximity to drama but rarely motivates it. Beyond Sita’s minimized role, there’s no thought to the industry that sustains the luxurious tastes of India’s corrupt – many of the escorts clearly hail from East Asian and Eastern European countries, but no one ever considers how their bodies are also tied up in the economy of exploitation.

Dev Patel as The Kid in shadow with his Monkey Man Mask on in Monkey Man

Dev Patel as The Kid in Monkey Man

Universal Pictures

But though they may be limited in scope and, therefore, impact, Monkey Man’s thrills are abundant. The fights, led by stunt coordinator Udeh Nans (who helped bring us both The Raid films) and choreographer Brahim Chab, pack a mean punch and give the film an electric pulse as we push through the (slightly egregious) two-hour runtime. The camerawork and editing let the side down at points – the seams and frays of Patel’s ambitious action approach are often visible – but what Monkey Man has in spades is a sense of propulsion.

The action is also aided by a mix of killer needle drops, thanks to music supervisor Peymon Maskan (now we all know about Bloodywood, the Indian folk metal band!) and an inventive score by Australian composer Jed Kurzel (who replaced original composer Volker Bertelmann). But the best musical moment comes from inside the story – when a fragile Kid is holed up in secrecy to recover some nasty wounds, he feebly attempts to spar with a punching bag. A tabla drummer steps in as a temporary training instructor, pushing him to fight using only the sounds of his drum. 

It encapsulates the greatest strengths of Dev Patel’s film: an inventive, rhythmic, and culturally specific way of drawing us closer and making us feel the action. Monkey Man struggles to leave an impact outside of that – but an impact is certainly made.

Monkey Man opens in theaters in the U.S. on Friday, April 5, 2024.

Picture shows: Rory Doherty

Rory Doherty is a writer of criticism, films, and plays based in Edinburgh, Scotland. He's often found watching something he knows he'll dislike but will agree to watch all of it anyway. You can follow his thoughts about all things stories @roryhasopinions.

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