The Camerawork on 'Monkey Man' Goes Apeshit

Directed by Dev Patel

Starring Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley, Pitobash, Vipin Sharma, Sikandar Kher, Adithi Kalkunte, Sobhita Dhulipala, Ashwini Kalsekar, Makarand Deshpande

Photo courtesy of Universal Studios

BY Rachel HoPublished Apr 4, 2024


Production of Monkey Man was set to begin in India just before the pandemic turned the world topsy-turvy, forcing Dev Patel to relocate his directorial debut to Indonesia with a restricted supporting cast. Add in getting dropped by original studio (before Jordan Peele's endorsement and move to Universal) and the associated financial challenges, the film had a lot working against it. Unfortunately for Patel, those struggles serve as an explanation for the general messiness of the film, rather than obstacles it overcame.

Monkey Man follows an anonymous man only known as Kid (Patel) who makes a living fighting in an underground club wearing a gorilla mask. Effectively acting as the fight club's whipping boy, Kid takes losses and punches every night for a paltry share of the earnings while harbouring a deep-seeded need for revenge against the elite class.

Kid's motivations unravel throughout the film with flashbacks to his childhood in good times and bad, in addition to brief touches upon Western indulgences and misguided religious idolatry.

Patel, one of only a handful of prominent South Asian actors in the West, also takes the opportunity to weave Monkey Man's story with Hindu folklore and Indian culture, in particular incorporating the hijra and their standing in Indian society, as well as the story of Hanuman. These inclusions give Monkey Man a welcome extra dimension beyond the typical shoot-'em-up action vehicle.

In addition to directing and acting in Monkey Man, Patel developed the story and co-wrote the screenplay. While at times it feels like there's too many plates spinning at once, it's rarely the fault of the story or script, and more of an editing issue. Patel balances the ideas well enough, but the film lacks a strong through-line to really tie the whole thing together into a strong, coherent story.

Patel presents himself as a compelling leading man — something we've been aware of since 2008's Slumdog Millionaire and very recently highlighted in David Lowry's The Green Knight, but there's a missed opportunity with supporting characters Alphonso (Pitobash) and Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala). Dhulipala's performance as an escort at the elite club Kid brings his wrath down on feels particularly squandered with limited screentime. Sita's similar upbringing to Kid, yet differing sentiment on how to survive, is begging to be explored more, especially with Dhualipala's ability to deliver pain in such an elegant and subtle manner.

Much of Monkey Man's marketing hinted towards the idea of the film being an "Indian John Wick" — something it doubles down on with an actual mention of the franchise in the early stages of the movie. While I can see the resemblances, especially in the violence and suited-up aesthetic, Monkey Man is an entirely different beast, in good ways and bad. The movie finds its own identity, but the frenetic camerawork could have benefited from a John Wick-ian flavour that could have prevented the fight sequences from feeling like being thrown around in a blender.

For a debut director, Patel shows a lot of promise, notably in the face of the many unexpected challenges. I can see the potential Peele saw in this film and why he didn't want it to be eaten by Netflix's algorithm. It's a fun movie with an absorbing storyline that lends itself to a lot of interesting avenues. Monkey Man feels so close to being a really great and different action movie, but it just narrowly falls short.

(Universal Pictures)

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