‘Monkey Man’ Takes Big Swings Even If It Sometimes Misses the Mark

Dev Patel's ambition is evident even if it doesn't always reach its target.
Monkey Man

Actors making the leap into the director’s chair is a common enough occurrence, but while most of them keep things simple their first time out, some ramp up the challenge with big, bold swings. Kevin Costner made a sprawling epic with Dances with Wolves (1990), Bradley Cooper remade a popular favorite with A Star Is Born (2018), and now Dev Patel has delivered a tale of revenge filled with style, flashbacks, action set-pieces, and muddled allusions to real-world politics. Unlike those other two, though, Patel’s film won’t be winning Oscars as Monkey Man‘s ambitious swings too often fumble when they should be flying high.

The Kid (Patel) is a young man who spends his nights donning a gorilla mask and getting his ass kicked in underground fights. He’s not without purpose, and it’s soon clear that his end game involves worming his way into a popular night club, climbing the ranks, and exacting revenge against the man who killed his mother. Police commissioner Rana (Sikandar Kher) is that villain and the muscle for a religious leader named Baba Shakti (Makrand Deshpande) who’s really only in it for the money. The pair have an army of men at their disposal, but the Kid has a furious thirst for vengeance which pretty much evens the odds.

If Monkey Man underwhelms as an action movie — more on that below — it makes up for it as an ambitious and visually compelling debut for director Patel. Its production woes are well-documented from budget shortages and filming delays to crew swaps and numerous injuries (including a broken hand for Patel himself), but those are more explanations than excuses. Clunky script issues are in part a problem of trying to do too much with too little, but there’s heart and ambition here, both in the story and in Patel’s efforts, and it’s impossible to ignore either as the film showcases the arrival of a real talent and a familiar tale in a fresh setting.

First, though, this is an action picture, and while there are some highlights in the third act, getting there requires wading through some messy skirmishes and fights. Patel, cinematographer Sharone Meir, and a trio of editors (Joe Galdo, Dávid Jancsó, and Tim Murrell) take an immersive approach to much of the action here by shooting it in tight close-ups and chopping the shit out of it. Cuts are rapid, and the tight framing at times makes it difficult to identify or appreciate what exactly we’re witnessing. The result is an action film you’ll want to appreciate more than it deserves to be appreciated.

Once the various threads lead our hero towards his ultimate confrontation, though, Patel and company allow the action in Monkey Man room to breathe. A fight in a restaurant kitchen pulls us back and lets shots roll, and the result is some viscerally thrilling carnage. That’s the right word, too, as kills are violent and bloody (with CG assists) as we rush headfirst towards the conclusion. It’s not quite enough to lift the film towards the top of the year’s action films, especially as the two-hour running time is an unavoidable drag, but it raises the pulse and entertains.

It’s rarely easy to see where an overly long film should have cut, but the answer is very clear with Monkey Man. The Kid’s journey is informed by flashbacks revealing the tragedy of his youth and the stories his mother would share about Hanuman, the simian deity at the heart of a Hindu epic called Ramayana. The latter is informative and interesting, especially for Western viewers unfamiliar with the tale, but the former is laid on unnecessarily thick for anyone whose ever seen an action film before. We get snippets, and it’s extremely clear that Rana killed the Kid’s mother during a police action powered by private interests. We see these glimpses again and again, and then later we’re treated to a longer flashback letting the scenes play out in their entirety. It’s no exaggeration to say that nearly thirty minutes could have been trimmed if Patel simply trusted viewers to piece together the tragic history he was so intent on showing us.

As mentioned, Monkey Man‘s script (by Paul Angunawela and John Collee, from a story idea by Patel) wants to do a lot more than its resources will allow. Ambition in filmmaking is always a positive so the effort is welcome, but it means ideas are loaded into the film with unequal weight. The tragic death of his mother gets far too much attention, while the politics and power plays of the ruling class get arguably too little. (An ironic truth, as it was reportedly those political details that had Netflix nervous about releasing the film in the first place, a hesitation that eventually led to Universal buying it from the streamer for a theatrical release.) The specifics of Monkey Man‘s attempts at wading into India’s religiously fueled political turmoil are far from simple to parse, especially for outsiders, but interested readers (which should be all of you) should give a read to Siddhant Adlakha’s excellent piece on the subject for Time. If it feels a bit messy while watching, well, this is partially why.

Still, for Monkey Man‘s stumbles there are numerous things to appreciate. Patel’s directorial chops far surpass the script he’s working with meaning we get some attractive visuals (outside of the aforementioned action beats) as The Kid works his way towards his goal. The city, a stand-in for Mumbai, shows off its neon-lit corners, gritty streets, and high-class establishments, and Patel gives that journey a physical momentum. Yes, it’s interrupted too often with those flashbacks, but the film works well and looks great while in the present. Side characters aren’t given much to do here in general as the film belongs to the Kid, but there’s a welcome exception made honoring and celebrating members of the hijra community. Known as “the third gender,” they’re trans women who are too often shunted to the side, but here Patel welcomes them in with warmth, beauty, and the opportunity to kick some ass of their own.

Monkey Man is a solid enough time for action fans. Yes, it’s overlong and a bit messy for what it’s doing, but Patel’s ambitions and efforts are impossible to ignore. Yes, there are better Netflix original action films I would have loved to see get rescued and given a theatrical release (a Lost Bullet double feature on the big screen would rule), but it’s rewarding to see a filmmaker witness their vision unfold in theaters where movies belong. Monkey Man is a good enough time that you’ll walk out excited for what Patel does next, and that’s no small thing.

Rob Hunter: Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.