Monkey Man (United States/Canada/India, 2024)

April 08, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Monkey Man Poster

Monkey Man, the feature directorial debut of actor Dev Patel, is a blood-soaked revenge tale with a high body count that refuses to pull its punches to make the protagonist more likable. Although generally following a superhero “origin story” template, there’s a lot more going on under the surface. The film’s DNA contains a strong political message about corruption and discrimination in India and incorporates references to the Hindu deity Hanuman. Although some of the protracted exposition/transitional sequences create pacing issues, the action scenes are brutal, visceral, and intense. The movie has been likened to John Wick (which is expressly mentioned in one scene) but the similarities are tenuous – this is a darker, less stylized piece of cinema. Instead, I’d compare it to Gareth Edwards’ 2012 The Raid: Redemption and its 2014 sequel, The Raid 2.

In addition to crafting the original story upon which the movie is based and directing it, Patel plays the lead, known primarily as “Kid.” His backstory establishes his raison d’être. After scenes depicting an idyllic childhood spent living in a forest village with his loving mother, Neela (Adithi Kalkunte), Kid is forced to witness the destruction of his home, the massacre of his friends, and the brutalization and murder of his mother at the hands of the police chief, Rana Singh (Sikander Kher). Singh is working for the guru Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), a rising force in national politics. After this event, Kid devotes his life to one goal: revenge.

When we meet him as an adult, he is nearing the end of his long road. Working as a monkey mask-wearing dupe in an underground boxing club run by the amoral Tiger (Sharlto Copley), Kid is accumulating enough money to put his plan into action. This involves becoming a waiter at a sex club frequented by Rana. After befriending the low-level gangster Alphonso (Pitobash) and securing a “getaway vehicle” (a supercharged tuk-tuk), Kid makes his move. Things don’t go as planned, however, and he barely escapes with his life while his dreams of vengeance remain unfulfilled.

Monkey Man features two bravura action scenes to go along with several smaller ones. The first involves the initial confrontation with Rana and includes numerous hand-to-hand fights, shootings, and a car chase. The second is the climactic battle in which Kid is joined by a small force of like-minded followers in a bigger melee.  Both are every bit as frenetically choreographed as anything in John Wick or the two Raid movies but with a less flippant approach than the Keanu Reeves film. Kid’s grievance is, after all, more dire than someone killing his puppy and stealing his car. And, after finding a purpose in championing the downtrodden and discriminated, his mission becomes more politically motivated than simply killing Rana and Bab Shakti.

Those who remember Patel best from his breakthrough role in 2008’s Slumdog Millionaire may scarcely recognize him. The difference isn’t related merely to the passage of years but the rigorous training regimen the actor endured to tone and shape his body. For lack of a better description, it’s a “Christian Bale-level transformation.” In choosing the villains, Patel has reached into Indian cinema to find Sikander Kher and Makarand Deshpande, who play the kind of characters the audience badly wants to see killed. Aside from Patel, the only other internationally recognizable name in the cast is Sharlto Copley (the two previously appeared together in Neill Blomkamp’s Chappie).

The movie is steeped in Hindu mythology, which may create some heavy lifting for those outside of the culture. This necessitates a level of exposition that at times brings the film’s breakneck pace to a sudden halt. In trying for an epic feel, there’s a sense that Patel may be overextending himself. Monkey Man is at its best when it concentrates on the basics of the bloody revenge story. The film’s setting (it rarely escapes from the seedy backstreets of Mumbai) and social conscience add flavor but don’t significantly amplify the core strengths. This is a tense, engaging thriller where people are stabbed, shot, dismembered, and killed in a variety of graphic and unspeakable fashions. Monkey Man may be a silly-sounding title but the story it tells is anything but silly.

Monkey Man (United States/Canada/India, 2024)

Run Time: 2:01
U.S. Release Date: 2024-04-05
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Gore, Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: Action/Thriller
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1