‘Monkey Man’ Review: A Barrell of Brutal Hits

Aaron Neuwirth reviews Monkey Man, the directorial debut of Dev Patel, who pays tribute to the martial arts films he loves by way of a gritty and stylish revenge thriller.
User Rating: 7

While I’ve seen hints of his interests in the past, it was only a few months ago that I learned Dev Patel was not only stepping behind the camera but intent on delivering a brutal genre flick calling back to some of his favorites. Monkey Man is a gritty action thriller made in the vein of a Sonny Chiba film (or The Raid if you want to lean more modern), filtered through the lens of neo-noir and something surprisingly spiritual. Featuring a mix of gritty fights and relevant, progressive social commentary, the high-wire act of putting something like this together with plenty of obstacles in his path, at the very least, shows that Patel is not willing to go easy on himself. Fortunately, even at its messiest, this is a high-energy, blisteringly violent display of cinema.

Set in Mumbai, the story is pretty straightforward, with two distinct halves broken up by an interlude that just as easily could have been an extended musical number. Patel plays an anonymous young man who spends his nights fighting losing battles in rigged underground boxing matches while wearing a monkey mask. It soon becomes clear that his calling is centered around a means for revenge, which will involve infiltrating a high-class club to get at some corrupt leaders. To accomplish his goal, it will be important for Patel’s character to channel the spirit of the Hindu deity Hanuman, who represents strength and courage.

See Also: ‘The Killer’ Review: David Fincher’s Precise Execution

Ultimately, the story, written by Patel, Paul Angunawela, and John Collee, is not breaking any new ground. That’s not all that important, as being an homage to everything from kung fu flicks from the 60s and 70s to the 2000s era real of Korean revenge thrillers, I’m not exactly looking to see if Patel was also planning to channel his inner Linklater. What we have is a film focusing on rage and retribution. Off to the side, however, are instances showing the importance of Patel’s heritage.

While from London, Patel seems bent on infusing this action film with Indian culture. To do that, while it may mean focusing on the uglier side of some urban regions, it also means adding a bit more depth. Real pain and trauma are being dealt with in Monkey Man, which gives the film a bit of an edge regarding whether the film is entirely focused on style and brutality. Several plot strands (not all wrapped up cleanly) speak to issues concerning politics, class, and even gender themes. While having a spiritual side lines this film up nicely with older Shaw Brothers productions; capturing the spirit of today goes far enough to make the grittiness land.

It’s also important to note that regardless of anything, Patel is great here. His screen presence is at an all-time high as he battles his way through this film, working with only so much dialogue, letting his face do a lot of work. His black belt status when it comes to the years of training in Taekwondo certainly shows as well, as physicality is, of course, key to all of this, and Monkey Man doesn’t leave much room for faking it.

Now, in terms of the action, where do I begin? Well, to start, I’m immensely pleased with the stages of action Patel’s character is presented. The film’s first half tells us that while this guy is driven and capable, he’s not the best fighter out there. He has room to grow, but that doesn’t stop us from seeing a bathroom brawl that leaves everyone exhausted, among other scuffles that don’t all end pretty.

Later in the film, we see a more fully-formed version of this guy, and the action packs even more punch. Not only do we get what I assume will stand as the best kitchen fight of 2024, there are restaurant battles, extended boxing blowouts, elevator carnage, and other arenas serving as the base for combat. And if it needs to be said – Monkey Man goes hard. There are knife stabs aplenty; any object in sight becomes a blunt instrument to crack a skull, and using one’s teeth is never frowned upon. Many of these henchmen may wish they could have just gotten a bullet instead of the beatings witnessed.

As the action is the main selling point of the feature, Monkey Man is a reasonably paced two hours that offers plenty of bloody violence for the audience, with no effort to shy away from the results. I wish there was a bit more breathing room regarding how close we are to the fighters in some instances, but I was never lost in what was happening. Compared to the stylized pulp of the John Wick series (named checked in this film before moving in other directions), while still geared toward entertainment, the pain on display looks like it really hurts. Honestly, it’s good that Patel is aiming for that sort of result.

Made on a low budget, this is the sort of film where you see a lot of production logos and producers and realize the filmmakers really had to scrape together what they could to make this movie. Fortunately, Jordan Peele came on board as a key producer to help Monkey Man get a larger release than would have been seen via Netflix. Still, its low-level production standard remains true. With that in mind, none of this detracts from how good the movie looks. Full of life and color, it may be dark in terms of subject matter, but between the production design and costume choices, there’s a vibrancy to be found here, even with the intended atmosphere on display.

While I don’t know if Patel is going to be continually driven by opportunities to make gonzo action flicks, I can say that his first attempt has worked out very well. There’s a visceral level of fun taking place here, intense as it may be, and the actor has no issue with how he presents himself on camera. The attempts to dress up the plotting with a bit more emphasis on more profound spiritual ideas and topics of today are a nice touch, but this still feels like a movie that knows what it is after and the audience it is hoping to please. Fortunately, the results are dropkicked onto the screen, with nothing else to hide. This is a bloody fun time at the movies.

Monkey Man opens in theaters on April 5, 2024.

7
Good
Written by
Aaron Neuwirth is a movie fanatic and Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic from Orange County, California. He’s a member of the African American Film Critics Association, the Hollywood Critics Association, the Online Film Critics Society, and the Black Film Critics Circle. As an outgoing person who is always thrilled to discuss movies, he’s also a podcaster who has put far too many hours into published audio content associated with film and television. His work has been published at Variety, We Live Entertainment, Why So Blu, The Young Folks, Firstshowing.net, Screen Rant, and Hi-Def Ninja.

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