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‘Monkey Man’ Review: Dev Patel’s Dynamite Directorial Debut Is More Than a John Wick Clone

Early on in “Monkey Man,” the directorial debut from Dev Patel which he also wrote and stars in, his troubled character known as Kid tries to get a gun. The recommendation he gets is for one that we’re told was used in the John Wick movies. It’s a cheeky comedic scene that feels like Patel and company foresaw the comparisons that have already been circulating between the two features. However, as the moment soon makes clear, this is not trying to be like that movie. It’s so much more.

As Kid picks out a different gun that better suits his purposes it reveals how Patel is not interested in playing by any of your expectations. Rather than live in the shadow of the past, both his own and the cinematic presence he’s had on screen, “Monkey Man” sees Patel kicking down the door for himself in stunning fashion.

The film, which had its World Premiere Monday night at the Paramount Theater in Austin as part of the 2024 SXSW Film & TV Festival, was at risk of disappearing into what could have been a streaming black hole after being acquired by Netflix.

That was until fellow filmmaker Jordan Peele, who was in attendance alongside Patel to introduce the screening, saw the immense potential for “Monkey Man” as a theatrical event and came aboard, getting Universal to purchase the movie, to help release this beast of a movie under his production company Monkeypaw. While far more grim than one might expect, and miles away from being a straight crowd-pleaser, it proves Patel is a force to be reckoned with, not only as an action star but as someone with skill behind the camera.

We first meet Patel’s Kid when he is far from being a mythic figure. Drawing from the legend of Hanuman he spends his days getting beat up in an underground fight club while wearing a monkey mask as his slimy boss, played by Sharlto Copley in what serves as an unexpected “Chappie” reunion for him and Patel, gleefully eggs on a cheering crowd making bets.

While this introduction sees him being beaten down, Kid has much bigger plans for what he wants to do with the tough life he has been given. Through a playfully constructed wallet robbery scene, where the film glides and cuts rhythmically with an entire network helping Kid, we see he is trying to find a way into the upper levels of elite Indian society to find someone from his past.

This someone is shown multiple times in flashbacks that increasingly haunt Kid. He carries with him scars, both on his burned hands and emotional, as images of brutality remain seared in his mind. While such recurring reminders of trauma could prove superficial and repetitive in lesser hands, Patel takes it a layer deeper in just how much it consumes his character.

While “Monkey Man” is undoubtedly an action film, it is also a character study of a man who has been broken and is trying to build himself back up to find justice in a world where that is in mighty short supply. It isn’t just him; there is an entire oppressed underclass targeted for their religious beliefs and exploited for the rich to get richer. The story, written by Patel along with Paul Angunawela and John Collee, is sturdy if a little light on character as it is mostly interested in grappling with these vast ideas with the force of its fists.

With everything stacked against you, who better to turn to than a mythic figure to even the odds? What makes “Monkey Man” so effective is Kid does not immediately rise to such a point. When he first tries to carry out his plan a brutal brawl unfolds in a bathroom where he is clearly out of his depth and only barely manages to survive.

While this action is less fluid that is by design and proof of a film with a stellar stunt crew. Every move, from a character being thrown through the air or being given the worst swirly imaginable, is perfectly executed. The camera and stunt performers are perfectly in sync, fully drawing us into Kid’s desperation as he tries to get out in one piece. This then builds into an extended chase sequence that only gets more fun the longer and more labyrinthian it becomes.

There is a bit of a lull in the middle of the film as it shifts from being about Kid carrying out his infiltration plan and the ensuing fight, to the aftermath of it all as he recovers from his wounds. This is the stretch that could lose some people who were hoping for more consistent action as it starts to feel like the film is spinning its wheels a bit.

With that being said, Patel is so charismatic and believable that you remain fully locked into Kid’s journey. That he must make new connections before finally confronting the trauma of his past is where the film shifts into being more evocative and surreal. There is plenty of darkness, with the uninterrupted flashback of what happened to Kid’s mother twisting the knife further and further, though none of it is without poetic purpose. Patel doesn’t shy away from agony as he then finds glimpses of joy as he prepares for the film’s final battle.

It is here where the film goes from good to great and doesn’t let up for the entire final act. While the journey may have been long this makes the payoff all the sweeter. At the same time, the film is not afraid to have glorious fun. Just when you think you’ve run out of ways to see people taken down it finds a whole bunch more. There is no limit to the creativity of the stunts and camerawork once Kid is unleashed.

The camera becomes more fluid in its movements as it floats around, with Patel dispatching foe after foe in some of the most brutal yet bonkers ways imaginable. A steady hand ensures we follow all of this perfectly, providing jaw-dropping moments left and right with an ease that is flooring without ever missing a step.

One confined fight that concludes with Kid using his mouth and a knife is deeply inspired, showing that the film has plenty of tricks to play just as it has the craft to back it up. When accompanied by an often delightfully anachronistic soundtrack that injects a darkly humorous tone into the unfolding violence, it comes together to make magnificent music of its own that you don’t want to end.

While Hollywood has long undervalued the work of stunt performers, “Monkey Man” shows why this is a grave oversight as they make the experience something spectacular to behold. Similarly, Patel is someone who has not been given his due in the way he should have been. Even as he led an Oscar-winning film in his breakout “Slumdog Millionaire,” there has always been a sense that we ought to be seeing more of him in whatever it is that he wants to take on next.

Though he’s done other interesting work, namely the recent “Green Knight,” this is the moment that feels like he is reintroducing himself on his own terms and with the film he has shaped most. That shape may be beaten to a pulp, but it couldn’t be any other way. Just as Kid is reborn in the film, so too is Patel. It requires fighting a bloody battle, but what a beautiful sight it is to see. Forget John Wick, let no one doubt the power of action star Dev Patel again.

Universal will release “Monkey Man” in theaters on April 5.

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