Review: ‘Monkey Man’

Dev Patel Comes Out Swinging With Wildly Outrageous, Uneven Mumbai Revenge Flick

Not to be a fly in the ointment here, although I’m resigned to the fact I will be, comparisons of Dev Patel’s oft-kinetic revenge flick Monkey Man to The Raid is severely exaggerated. It’s not really a knock against Patel, whose directorial debut packs quite a wallop when it wants to. He’s doing something different and telling a dark story of oppression and pain in the blood and sweat-soaked slums of Mumbai. A passion project that received a much-needed boost from Jordan Peele, Monkey Man isn’t the all-out blitzkrieg of action that it looks to be as Patel aims for greater depth. But in doing so, the film struggles to maintain a compelling grip.

Patel is clearly a guy who knows his stuff when it comes to action movies. Monkey Man, inspired by the Hindu legend of the monkey god Hanuman, draws clear inspiration from The Raid, but also Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon, and of course John Wick which gets referenced directly early on in the movie. I would perhaps add a touch of Nicolas Winding Refn, too, and films such as Drive and Only God Forgives, especially in the ominous neon-lit atmosphere. The best thing about those movies is they know how to highlight their stars, and Patel has learned that lesson well, taking time between punch ’em ups to unbutton his shirt to reveal glistening six-pack abs. He plays “Bobby”, a fictional name inspired by a brand of bleach used to scrub dishes, and he’s on a mission of vengeance against the ruling elite class who have long stepped on the throats of the underclass. Bobby’s stake in this is personal against those who destroyed his life and killed his mother: there’s Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar), a vicious brothel manager; Rana (Sikander Kher), a corrupt cop who destroys everything in his wake; and phony spiritual guru/politician Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande) who can barely hide his lust for power.

This isn’t wall-to-wall fisticuffs, however. Much of the film finds Bobby infiltrating his way into the criminal underworld. For that, he takes nightly beatings in a monkey mask at an underground fight club run by a shady promoter played by Sharlto Copley. With no qualms about throwing fights, Bobby easily uses the money-earning potential to make friends in key places, like mouthy hustler Alphonso (Pitobash), who has connections everywhere, including into Queenie’s operation. There he also befriends Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala), an escort whose beauty has taken her from a rural upbringing and into the lap of high-society. She’s not much of a character, frankly.

Patel’s herky-jerky screenplay bounces around awkwardly, combining fiery flashbacks with real footage of sectarian violence, but doesn’t exclude the genre trope of a good ol’ fashioned montage. Bobby finds himself recuperating in a community of ostracized trans warriors in a subplot that desperately needs fleshing out. It makes for a cool payoff in the end but it’s hard to escape the feeling that there’s a lot of cultural context that Patel is leaving out, perhaps forgetting that the vast majority of his audience will have no familiarity with Indian social issues.

I don’t think anyone would’ve guessed the guy from Slumdog Millionaire and David Copperfield to be the model of a martial arts superstar, but Patel’s ass-kicking skills are absolutely awesome. He delivers brutal punishment like a seasoned pro, with edged weapons always a favorite in the most vicious Indian action flicks. Patel’s focused, charismatic performance keeps you glued, even when the needs of a functional story intrude. To be fair, even the best movies in this genre have barebones plots and it’s to Patel’s credit that he rises above it. As a director, he employs rapid fire cuts, a camera that is in constant motion, and crazy shifts in perspective that spruce up the cinematic violence. When Monkey Man gets on a roll, it’s a wildly outrageous ride and Patel is only just getting started.

Monkey Man opens in theaters on April 5th.

Monkey Man
Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
monkey-man-52058Not to be a fly in the ointment here, although I'm resigned to the fact I will be, comparisons of Dev Patel's oft-kinetic revenge flick Monkey Man to The Raid is severely exaggerated. It's not really a knock against Patel, whose directorial debut packs...