Monkey Man REVIEW – Monkey Do Pretty Good

Monkey Man review
Monkey Man review

Early on in Monkey Man, Dev Patel’s character, credited only as “Kid,” goes to buy a gun and the seller asks “Do you like John Wick?” before offering the Kid Wick’s preferred Heckler & Koch P30L. The kid passes, opting for something smaller that better suits his needs, but the call out of the last decade’s most celebrated and influential action movie is bold.

Any hard-hitting action film released since Wick’s first outing has been compared to that film. Especially those that create locales with character and incredible lighting for their characters to inhabit and destroy with their battles; something Patel (making his feature directorial debut), production designer Pawas Sawatchaiyamet, and cinematographer Sharone Meir do with aplomb. So the comparison is unavoidable and Monkey Man’s decision to directly acknowledge it before having its protagonist choose to differentiate himself from Wick feels like a shot being called.

Yes, Monkey Man’s sometimes neon-lit and club set fight scenes that use everything from guns to baking sheets as weapons are consciously indebted to the John Wick films. Just as it’s consciously indebted to Gareth Evans’s The Raid duology in its brutal choreography and chaotic camerawork. There’s also the clear influence of Prachya Pinkaew’s Ong Bak in Monkey Man’s spiritually centered plot and often dingy aesthetic. Even Michael Bay seems to be a touchpoint during a rollicking high speed car chase.

Patel and his team manage to swirl all of these influences together to create something unique. The neon in Monkey Man is murkier, illuminating spaces by adding color to the grainy haze that hangs in the air rather than offering crisp and clear images. The film often looks an ugly sort of beautiful, filled with olive green walls lit by sickly yellow lamps or cold, flat fluorescents. The Kid brawls for cash in an underground fight ring and in the film’s final moments makes his way up a building to take on what can only be called bosses, both of which feature in the aforementioned films.

All of this style isn’t simply in service of genre thrills though, Monkey Man is a fiercely political film. It takes fairly explicit aim at India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and their far-right Hindu-supremacist Hindutva ideology, going so far as to include real footage of protests and violent government crackdowns on those protests while attributing the authoritarian action to the fictional Sovereign Party.

Almost the entire second act of the film is set in a temple that’s home to a hijra community, where the Kid recovers from an early beating and trains to defeat the men who gave him that beating. In a powerful renunciation of the discrimination the hijra and trans Indians often face from the right, there are several scenes of infectious joy in the temple, and the Kid takes the leader of the community Alpha (Vipin Sharma) as a mentor in his training that’s just as mental and spiritual as it is physical.

Throughout the film, we get frequent flashbacks to the Kid’s childhood and time spent with his mother as she relays the legend of Hanuman. The Kid identifies with the deity, both as a warrior motivated by love and as someone with a monkey’s face on a human body (though in the Kid’s case the monkey face is a mask), and the film emphasizes this repeatedly. Along with the flashbacks, which are overused, one scene shows an image of Hanuman pulling open his chest so that we understand it as a point of identification when the Kid does the same during a drug trip seconds later.

Subtlety isn’t the film’s strong suit in any area, which works in some ways and fails in others. The battle against ethnonationalism doesn’t need to be subtle, the fact that the hero literally fights the leaders and defenders of this abhorrent ideology is one of the film’s strongest points. But the flashbacks that may number in the teens end up being more annoying than affecting or useful as character backstory, and a “Roxanne” needle drop as the Kid connects with a sex worker with a heart of gold is laughable.

In an irony (both in regards to the film’s lack of subtlety and its messaging), it also seems that the film’s blatant attack on the Bharatiya Janata Party has been toned down. The Sovereign Party’s colors have been changed from their original saffron orange to red in the film, something that distributor Universal Studios and Jordan Peele, who’s been touted as producer, should answer for.

Yet despite its sometimes embarrassing, sometimes politically suspicious faults, Monkey Man is a riveting action movie and galvanizing film. One that will likely motivate non-Indians to learn more about the attacks on marginalized Indians by the Bharatiya Janata Party and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and that’s worth celebrating.

READ NEXT: 10 Games So Awful That They Got Deleted

Some of the coverage you find on Cultured Vultures contains affiliate links, which provide us with small commissions based on purchases made from visiting our site. We cover gaming news, movie reviews, wrestling and much more.

Monkey Man review
Monkey Man has some flaws, but its explicit political ideology and thrilling fight scenes make it a remarkable feature directorial debut from Dev Patel.