The HoloFiles

REVIEW: Monkey Man

By George & Josh Bate

Monkey Man Review

Actors making the switch to move behind the camera and into the director’s chair has become something of a regular occurrence in Hollywood. What’s less common, however, is an actor whose first shot at directing involves extensive action sequences requiring intricate handling. New directors typically opt for smaller, more manageable projects; while there’s certainly nothing wrong with that, it’s extra impressive when an emerging filmmaker dives right into something more expansive.

That’s exactly what Dev Patel does with his new film Monkey Man, which he stars in as well as directs, produces, and co-writes. Monkey Man follows a nameless young man living in India who regularly participates in brutal fights in an underground fight club. The young man, referred to as Kid and Bobby at times, puts fighting aside as he gets a job at an upscale restaurant. While on the surface, it appears Kid has sights on promotion within the restaurant, it quickly becomes clear that everything he does revolves around a single aim: revenge.

Monkey Man Review

Monkey Man begins as a story shrouded in mystery. The audience is kept at arms length from Dev Patel’s lead character as we’re plummeted into the middle of a story with little context or details. Kid fights in an underground fight club, but we don’t get a sense of why he does this. Kid is fixated on progression within this restaurant, but why he is so intent on this remains unclear. Scattered flashbacks with hand-held camera work reminiscent of Danny Boyle shine a brief light on Kid’s background, suggesting that a trauma involving his mother underlies his decisions. Apart from these flashbacks though, details about the lead character are given sparingly during the first act.

The presumed intent of the decision to feed the audience details on the main hero at a relatively slow pace, thus keeping the character mysterious at the beginning, is to build intrigue in the character and the story more broadly. Unfortunately, this intrigue comes at a cost as the narrative is decidedly muddled for the first act. In turn, the film kicks off on shaky ground and takes quite some time to find its footing.

Monkey Man Review

Another issue with a story and lead so shrouded in mystery at the beginning is that it creates an emotional disconnect between the character and the audience. Emotional investment in Kid and and his quest for revenge are suspended until much later on, when his motivations for revenge are finally revealed. Until then though, there’s considerable distance between the viewer and the story, making it difficult to get behind the character and feel invested in the story.

The core reason why the first John Wick movie (which was clearly a massive inspiration for Patel in making Monkey Man) works, for example, is that the title character’s motives are made clear right away. His wife passed away, leaving behind a puppy for Keanu Reeves’ hero to take care of. When the dog is killed by a gang of criminals, a man fueled by grief at the loss of both his wife and the dog goes after those who wronged him. It’s straightforward storytelling and yet works to emotionally hook the audience and get us behind the lead character. Conversely, Monkey Man delays this emotional investment with a first act muddled in messy storytelling at the expense of true connection with the audience.

When pieces about Kid’s background are eventually revealed though, Monkey Man becomes a far more compelling film. A brutal and affecting flashback sequence details the trauma of Patel’s character and provides much needed context for his behaviors in the film, context that unfortunately was missing for much of the film’s first half.

As a revenge story, Monkey Man is ultimately an action film. With the likes of John Wick and more recently Road House elevating the stunt mechanics and filmmaking craft of fight sequences, it has become harder and harder to impress as an action film and stand out. And, while not hitting the dynamic heights of novelty of either the John Wick series or Road House, the action in Monkey Man is spectacular nonetheless. Patel crafts raw and intimate combat sequences in which one can feel the weight of every punch. The environment/set is interactive as characters are constantly incorporating parts of their surroundings into a fight. There’s also very few guns in the movie, which leaves most of the action to unfold in more intimate hand-to-hand combat sequences.

Interestingly, however, there isn’t as much action in Monkey Man as one would think. The film opens with a rather conventional and brief fight in the underground club before it cuts to focus on Kid’s mysterious revenge mission. No action occurs until an extended action sequence caps off the first act, before the film goes into a meandering and poorly paced middle act deprived of any action. This second act, instead, is rooted in political messaging, which, while admirable in highlighting class-based inequity and transgender marginalization, is paper thin.

The substantive political messaging of the second act flows into a third act where the film finally takes shape. With Kid’s motivations made clear and a muddled second act at an end, Monkey Man becomes the action film it was always meant to be in the final act. Patel’s ambitions as a director are exhibited as he constructs dynamic and captivating action sequences both as a director behind the camera and a performer in front of the camera. There are a number of applause-worthy moments as Kid triumphantly gets his revenge against those who wronged him. Again, this action isn’t quite at the level of John Wick or the recently released Road House, but it is undoubtedly thrilling and engaging.

Akin to John Wick, Monkey Man also has a lived-in world that it exists in. Situated in the seedy underbelly of India, Patel’s film is gritty and grimy. The characters that populate this world fall into two categories: those who commit horrible acts of injustice and those who horrible acts of injustice are committed against. Patel takes the audience through the inner circle of this world with a propensity for needle-drop music moments, whether it be of Indian hip-hop or a booming Rick Ross song. All of this makes for confident filmmaking in creating a unique world for the character and his story to exist in.

VERDICT: 6.5/10

Dev Patel’s first foray into directing demonstrates his real promise as a filmmaker, with spectacular action sequences and a unique style to bring this gritty world to life. A muddled first act in which the character’s background is unnecessarily shrouded in mystery and a meandering second act filled with admirable, yet thin, political messaging lead into a triumphant final act where the film finally becomes what it’s meant to be. Featuring essentially only two extended action sequences means Monkey Man may not appeal to fans desiring the unrelenting action of recent John Wick films, but the action packs a punch when it eventually arrives. With Monkey Man, Patel confidently navigates his directorial debut and shows that he is unquestionably a director of incredible promise.

The HoloFiles

The HoloFiles is a website and series of social media accounts, including Star Wars Holocron, Marvel Tesseract, DC Motherbox, Film Codex, and Horror Necronomicon. We love cinema and television, and aim to spread positivity across different fandoms. Come to us for news, reviews, interviews, trivia facts, quotes, behind the scenes photos, analytic features, and more!