Dev Patel’s ‘Monkey Man’ Pulls No Punches and is All Vengeance, All the Time

In the opening moments of Monkey Man, our protagonists takes a beating and spits out a mouthful of blood before he speaks his first words on screen. It is a bold statement that the story is going to be told mostly through brutality and hallmark visuals than it will be through exposition. Sometimes, this is very effective and compelling. But sometimes, the action and style compensate for the thinness of the story or to bridge gaps in logic it would rather you skip past. However, Dev Patel’s vision is always on display, always slick with environment and care, no matter how bloody it gets.

Though we first truly meet Kid, Dev Patel’s character who I believe never gets a more personal name, in a ring being paid to take a beating, early flashbacks begin to spell out the events that led Kid here. The pacing is well constructed, giving us just enough pieces without the whole bag to show us Kid once had a mother who cared very deeply for him. As more story is revealed as to what happened to Kid when they were, yeah, a kid, his mother and their village, the absolute rage that grown up Kid operates with becomes more and more justified. And, there be rage here.

Fueled by the story told to him by his mother, Kid remembers Hanuman. The monkey who had ambitions to eat the sun but was punished by the gods for it. There isn’t a lot of standout acting, quite honestly, the camera doesn’t really linger on anyone else for too long outside of Kid to make an impact. But Patel is so dialed in as a man consumed with a singular goal, that whether he is hustling drinks to corrupted high rollers taking down legions of bodyguards trying to reach his target, you scarcely want the camera on someone else. Having said that, it does shine a light on how narrow the film can be, from the world it portrays to the characters to themselves. It is one of those films that often deploys character descriptions as names to articulate archetypes in the world.

The fight promoter is named Tiger. The warrior that takes Kid in late in the film is Alpha. The operator of the corrupt establishment that Kid infiltrates is named Queenie. Not all the characters in the film or named this way, but honestly there are probably less than ten characters with more than one line of dialogue in the film anyway, so the point of the archetypes is made. Even if it doesn’t always serve this film in beneficial ways. They are there to add either an obstacle or an aid Kid on their quest for vengeance, and that is often the extent of their usefulness to the film. There is some allusions to bigger things happening outside of Kid’s goal in the movie but the even these are less about the world and more about showing how evil the antagonists are or how righteous and wronged Kid’s community is. There is no real sense that the world is happening outside of this story and things flow in such a way, that you might be justified in thinking the world in the film comes to a complete stop when the credits roll, even though the story is driven by one individual fighting his way up a large singular building.

Monkey Man

What cannot be denied is how great Monkey Man looks and flows visually. The city is very alive, articulated by a pickpocket sequence that happens early in the film, where the snatched purse changes hands no less than twelve times through various kids, businesses, and couriers before it reaches its target location. It’s a very immersive way for us to be introduced to the city, the people in it, what their lives look like, and how this particular community operates while getting a whirlwind tour of how the city looks. An immediate stark contrast to when Kid begins serving in the previously mentioned “den of luxury and corruption.” On the street, among the impoverished folks, the sun is shining. It is vibrant and bustling. In the tower, there are dark strobe light aided rooms, techno music blasting and a lot more stagnant people behaving badly. The difference between the two environments is not subtle and the lack of subtly works really well here. That framing doesn’t always show up with more depth as the story progresses, but visually it tells a great story where Kid must navigate both worlds.

This holds once the action kicks up and it is relentless. Patel has commented how difficult the filming of the action scenes was, especially after he suffered some serious injuries on set that altered how many scenes were shot. But he is absolutely up to the task as an action protagonist, which as a black belt in taekwondo, feels appropriate. The action is helped by some bold directorial choices. Most of the time the camera is fixed on Patel in the middle of the shot, but often we are given a first-person perspective, other times the camera zooms and arcs behind Patel. But it never becomes a Shonen anime where you can’t tell exactly what action is happening, even while maintaining how frenetic it is intended to be. The movie also holds one of my favorite training montages to date, that invokes a unique community and environmental involvement as Kid prepares for his third act showdown. It is satisfying, and I would argue one of the more rewatchable parts of the film, up there with some of the big action sequences.

Monkey Man isn’t all action though, and this flexes the strengths and weaknesses of the movie in tandem. As stated in so many mediums, revenge is never a straight line, and Kid’s best laid plans take a massive detour. We get some of the film’s best moments, where Kid is taken in by an outcast community (who somewhat tie into the larger world of the movie, but definitely into its politics). We eventually get the flashback that shows Kid’s full backstory and crystalizes his motivation. The problem is, none of this is surprising or original from the one-man army action movie tropes. There’s a grave wound to the hero. They’re saved by an unlikely community. There’s a big big wrong committed in the backstory where the hero centers themselves. And then the hero lays wasted to everything in the third act. It is a tried and true formula with a unique setting but nothing to improve upon the familiar path.

I would talk about the antagonists, but they are just villains in this movie. Their motivations are either 100% selfish with no nuance or non-existent. They are just bad, bad people that we want Kid to punch into submission. I did appreciate some of the progression of Kid themselves. While vengeance is his only care, he is not immediately a killer. The hesitancy and lack of outright brutality maintains the somewhat insight characterization of Kid. That vanishes…so quickly, however. And once he takes one life, then no lives will be spared.

Monkey Man

You can see every bit of passion in the close shots, the fight scenes, and the contemplative moments that Patel puts together. And it is Patel, a passion project worthy of the long production time we’ve heard about. The storytelling is easy to follow without much complexity, and while I’m happy to have movies that aren’t always 150-minute plus epics, it does feel like the movie needed a little more time to flesh out characters with their own stories and not just accessories to Kid’s plight. It isn’t completely an action movie where its best if you turn your brain off, that would be unfair. But it is a movie better enjoyed without trying to put much stock in the non-action aspects because it does the action, so, so well.

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  • William is the Editor-In-Chief, leader of the Black Knights and father of the Avatar. With Korra's attitude, not the other one.

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