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‘Monkey Man’ Review: An Action-Packed Cultural Immersion

Dir. Dev Patel — 3.5 Stars

"Monkey Man" still featuring Dev Patel
"Monkey Man" still featuring Dev Patel By Courtesy of Universal Pictures
By Joseph A. Johnson, Crimson Staff Writer

“Monkey Man” was originally pitched as “John Wick set in Mumbai.” The final, gory product lives up to this expectation, while also infusing the film with nonlinear chronology, experimental cinematography, and cultural symbols galore. As a latecomer producer, modern horror pioneer Jordan Peele brought the film out of relative obscurity and shepherded a worldwide theatrical release through his aptly titled production company Monkeypaw Studios.

Dev Patel, who directed “Monkey Man” and plays its eponymous lead, is highly aware of the parallels between his film and the “John Wick” franchise. Monkey Man even makes a brief mention of the Keanu Reeves-portrayed protagonist while at an underground weapons dealer during one of the film’s many tense scenes. Like “John Wick,” “Monkey Man” is not afraid to verge on the satirical, subverting classic combat tropes one after the other in increasingly absurdist fight sequences. At one point, Monkey Man uses a microwave to fight bad guys; in another scene, he knocks out a big baddie with a single, unexpected blow.

Whether substituting kitchenware for weaponry or delivering humorously anticlimactic battles, “Monkey Man” does not always feel the need to take itself seriously. In a film that otherwise moves at a breakneck pace, comedy helps to lighten dramatic and hard-to-process situations.

All of the best aspects of “Monkey Man” come together in an unforgettable car chase between the corrupt Mumbai police and Monkey Man and his work friend Alphonso (Pitobash). After unsuccessfully attempting murder on the man responsible for his tragic backstory, Monkey Man drives Alphonso’s supercharged tuk-tuk through the nightlife-ridden streets. Clever, intense, and funny, the car chase ends with a point-of-view shot as the tuk-tuk comes to a screeching halt to avoid hitting a little girl. This much-needed comic diversion ultimately humanizes Monkey Man and ups the story’s stakes even higher than before.

From here, the action intensifies further, and a badly injured Monkey Man must dodge the cops — prowling the night in police cruisers and helicopters — on foot. While this sequence is more technically impressive than the preceding one, it lacks the invention and whimsy that make much of “Monkey Man” great. Patel often cleverly lays the groundwork for big sequences so that the big sequences themselves — unoriginal and bloated — seem as if they were made on “directorial autopilot.”

The same can be said for the flashback sequences revealing key aspects of Monkey Man’s enigmatic character. While Patel cinematically weaves Monkey Man’s past and present, the idiosyncratic visuals and paranoid editing cannot make up for the protagonist’s hackneyed motives and origin. Too many wives, girlfriends, friends, mothers, and sisters have been killed or captured to inspire angry male protagonists in revenge thrillers, and “Monkey Man” is just as guilty as the rest. It plays into this dated trope without the meta-commentary that makes films like “John Wick” great.

When “Monkey Man” isn’t being bogged down by genre conventions, it depicts a captivating story underpinned by Indian culture that is rarely seen on the silver screen. The monkey symbol, for example, is inspired by Lord Hanuman, who famously found strength in his unsuccessful effort to eat the sun. While Icarus is a cautionary tale, Lord Hanuman is an inspiring one. Yes, he betrayed social conventions, but he also learned to persevere in spite of his struggles — which is not coincidentally Monkey’s Man’s modus operandi.

The people and music of “Monkey Man” also highlight Indian culture, distinguishing the story, its characters, and its situations from traditional American action cinema. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, quick closeup shots make up a frenetic montage in which Monkey Man’s friends help him steal — and later return — an important lady’s purse. Fast-paced Indian music makes the scene burst with energy — bringing the audience, like the purse, along for a wild ride.

While “Monkey Man” has its slow and clichéd moments, it ultimately packs a punch just as powerful as its protagonist’s — in no small part due to the innovative filmmaking, comic beats, and cultural elements of its expansive, heart-pounding story.

—Staff writer Joseph A. Johnson can be reached at Follow him on X @onlyjoejohnson or on Threads @officialjoeyj.

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