Monkey Man


Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

Monkey Man
"There are places where constraint has given Monkey Man opportunities to invent and flourish and it has been fruitful."

A multilayered revenge thriller, a dizzying swirl through a version of Mumbai's underworld that owes as much to The Matrix as it does to Society, Polite or otherwise. A début feature for writer, director, star Dev Patel, it never dwells on its various filmmaking influences and references as it pushes towards its blistering finale. That's after a bruising and scarring start, more traumatic flashbacks, even a tabla-scored training montage. While it does take a moment or two to rest, Monkey Man is as intent on incident as The Raid or Mad Max: Fury Road.

One of the few things left out of Monkey Man is the oft-covered ska classic by Toots & The Maytals. That's not to suggest that anything that the film throws to see if it sticks isn't of quality, indeed the opposite is true. It's serious monkey business, a caper of quality that's juggling a large number of influences to create something kinetic and compelling. I've mentioned several other films in the opening paragraph and that's not just to vex my editor. If you enjoyed any of those there's a good chance that Monkey Man will grab you and drag you along.

Copy picture

There are nods to the films of Jean-Pierre Melville, Quentin Tarantino, Bruce Lee, Nicolas Winding-Refn, Paul Greengrass, Martin Scorsese, Lynn Ramsay, Park Chan-wook, Danny Boyle, Denis Villeneuve, Edgar Wright, more. Some of these are as small as a single moment seen through CCTV, others are halls of mirrors or full of mooks in sharp suits. There's a dozen kinds of lighting but they're all in their own way neon on grime or sunlight on grit. I say 'nods' because at a certain point if the ingredients are mixed correctly it becomes something new. Monkey Man might not quite process its mélange into something homogenous but its textures and flavours are frenetic and fun.

It was co-written with Paul Angunawela (best known for the Keith Lemon film) and veteran John Collee. Collee's had some novels published, but his film career includes screenplays for Master & Commander The Far Side Of The World and Happy Feet. He's worked with Patel before on hamster-made-homicidal short Roborovski. I've a rule of thumb that a script's quality is usually inversely proportional to the number of credits, but Monkey Man does test it.

The pacing is perhaps a little off, there's a lull in the middle that feels a bit Hero's Journey and whose rhythms don't quite mesh. At a minute over two hours one does wonder if (unlike its protagonist) it could have been leaner. There is a bit of breathing space before a non-stop denoument that turns Diwali into a festival of fight. Patel's gone through one of those de rigeur training regimes that means there are scenes where he appears to have muscles that I as a (lazy) man in my forties only have as a twinge of recognition.

Sharone Meir's camera is as close-focused as it was for Whiplash and Jed Kurzel's score has the same edge of 'man on the edge' as his work for True History Of The Kelly Gang and Nitram. There's a bit of synth in there that kept reminding me of the theme from Top Gun but it does a good job in bridging a soundtrack that includes Sneha Khanwalker, Vessel, someone sampling The Police's Roxanne to provide a sting, and Boney M.

There is a question as to how well it can be built upon. I'm not alone in my fondness for Equilibrium, a film which seems a more accidental triumph with every successive work by Kurt Wimmer. I know I keep mentioning other films and I could go on and on. It reminded me a little of The Terminal in terms of the breadth of its allusions but the advantage that Monkey Man has is that it works. There are places where constraint has given Monkey Man opportunities to invent and flourish and it has been fruitful. Roots grow in the ground, after all, shaped by weight and darkness. Its politics of tolerance might seem an uneasy mix with the violence its protagonist metes out in kitchen and club and various corners, but the violence that prompts it is difficult enough that though set in Mumbai it was filmed in Indonesia. It's not hard to read its villains in light of modern Indian politics, indeed it's very careful about who and how it lionises.

I'm looking forward to Patel's next work. This might be classed, lazily, as his John Wick, but it's only a related breed. It mentions that movie specifically, though the scene with its mention of film-firearms reminded me of Lord Of War. It's got a dog, too, but for a different purpose. If anything its references are a mask to conceal something leaner and more fierce.

For many audiences the most familiar face will be Sharlto Copley, though some might recognise others who were in Hotel Mumbai. Pitobash had a western breakthrough with Disney baseball film Million Dollar Arm, but he's a star in his own right and as hustler Alfonso working for Ashwini Kelsekar's Queenie he brings a bit of comic relief. That includes a particularly amusing moment when his transport is revealed, reappearing in a later chase that's almost cartoonish in its sensibilities. Again, that might seem a negative but it's part of a wide set of influences that have produced something satisfying.

At one point there's a reference to 'The Dark Destroyer' and I don't actually care if it's to Shaun Wallace of The Chase or pugilist Nigel Benn because it's a small nod introducing the titular combatant in scenes that might remind one of the Kickboxer franchise. That's Muay Thai, but though Monkey Man's fights take place everywhere there's more than enough mixing of its martial arts to fill an octagon.

It's absolutely deserving of its 18 rating. Its polyglot sensibility includes 'foul' as one of its tongues. That's even without the violence, which is as gleeful and inventive as I've seen in a while. Brawls in bathrooms, conflict in kitchens, knife-fights in nightclubs and elevator altercations create opportunities for people to get got with everything from pistols to pots and pans. One of those has a tribute to Trainspotting that will make you want to hold your (snub)nose. That's good advice in general, because while Monkey Man may not rip your face off it will knock you out your socks.

Reviewed on: 04 Apr 2024
Share this with others on...
Monkey Man packshot
An anonymous young man unleashes a campaign of vengeance against the corrupt leaders who murdered his mother and continue to systemically victimise the poor and powerless.
Amazon link

Director: Dev Patel

Writer: Dev Patel, Paul Angunawela, John Collee

Starring: Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley, Pitobash, Vipin Sharma, Sikanda Kher, Adithe Kalkunte, Sobhita Dhulipala

Year: 2024

Runtime: 121 minutes

Country: US, Canada, Singapore, India


Search database:

If you like this, try:

The Ape
Police Story