Credit: Akhirwan Nurhaidir/Universal Pictures
Blockbuster Beat by Matt Lynch Featured Film

Monkey Man — Dev Patel

April 5, 2024

As ancient Klingon proverbs go, “Revenge is a dish best served cold” is probably the most famous. But only slightly less well-known is, “It’s the pilot, not the plane.” Which is fitting, since they’re essentially both about the same thing: that for a simple genre movie walking on some well-trod trails, it’s all in the execution. That brings us to Monkey Man, starring, co-written, and directed by Dev Patel. It’s an uneven movie whose strengths seem to come directly from its obviously passionate creator, but those same elements often get in the way of genre demands of narrative economy and pure thrills.

We meet Patel’s character, billed only as “Kid,” in the middle of an underground MMA fight, during which he wears a gorilla mask, and also which he is losing, possibly on purpose. “If you want money, you gotta put on a good show,” complains the fight promotor (Sharlto Copley, for some reason). The underground fighting turns out to be a bit of a distraction from the story, which doesn’t start for at least 20 minutes when Kid snakes his way into a job at a nightclub run by Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar). It also just so happens to secretly be both a base for her sex-trafficking business and a hangout for a who’s who of Mumbai’s corruption and gangsterism. Meanwhile, Kid is haunted by flashbacks to some horrible trauma involving his mother. You win the no-prize if you figured out that he’s here to try to get revenge on the assholes that killed her.

From the start, Monkey Man’s pace is frustratingly sluggish and erratic. The first half hour could have easily been jettisoned without sacrificing clarity and character motivation, but it’s clear that Patel thinks that he needs that time to establish some emotional roots. Is he wrong? That’s harder to say, as the dramatic elements of the film, though they’re hardly original, are, in fact, its most successful. There’s some genuine soulfulness to the proceedings, and the portrayal of the righteous anger of marginalized or brutalized victims of oppression — particularly in a subplot involving a group of trans people occupying an old temple — isn’t merely a cliche or convenience here; in fact, it’s the karmic engine that drives the story.

What’s unfortunately less successful is Patel’s handling of the film’s action. First, there’s not a lot of it: only a few short fights and maybe two large set pieces spread out over a full two hours. They’re not without their moments, and there’s a fair share of gleeful bloodletting, but they’re also afflicted with way, way too much handheld, a lot of very obvious digital stitching together of shots, and Patel, of course, uses four cuts when one would do. The fighting is obviously well-choreographed, but the cardinal sin is committed here of failing to construct it so that the viewer is able to parse it most of the time — and you especially can’t see it well through the piss-orange color palette that’s always deployed when movies take place in this part of the world. There’s a lot to like about Monkey Man, particularly its ambitions to imbue some real cultural specificity and bring rawer emotion to the genre flick without seriously reinventing the wheel, but its limitations in pacing and form prevent it from ever quite taking off.

DIRECTOR: Dev Patel;  CAST: Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley, Pitobash, Vipin Sharma;  DISTRIBUTOR: Universal Pictures;  IN THEATERS: April 5;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 53 min.