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Monkey Man (2024) Review

I don’t know if this counts as a hot take, but action films have a bad rap. While it may be easy to dismiss the entire genre as shallow fanfare, movies like Enter the Dragon (1973) or the more recent John Wick tetralogy have proven to be stylishly infused with a strong sense of emotion, using operatic choreography to trace character arcs and changes in relationships. This same technical and emotional vibrancy makes Dev Patel’s directorial debut so stunning. Boldly wearing its influences on its sleeve even in the trailer, it follows a young man’s quest for revenge against those who killed his family and stole their land. Embellishing this well-worn narrative with bits of Hindu mythology and Indian history, audiences are given a movie that extends beyond the limitations of genre and archetype to encompass social commentaries on class, gender, religion and nationalism in Indian society and culture.

            It’s always a miracle anytime a film gets made and distributed, but especially one with so many production mishaps; be it financiers threatening to pull out two weeks before shooting, last minute location changes and more, it’s incredible how much adversity Patel faced without any of it affecting the final product. The camera movement throughout is wildly fluid, never staying still, as if to capture the instability of life for the poor, never knowing when their next meal will be. It also adds a ton of energy to the fighting sequences (really, the film overall). Patel’s spoken about the blocking being resultant of a scene-by-scene collaboration between himself, DP Sharone Meir and the stuntmen, even recruiting one of them to be a camera operator in certain scenes; and that thoughtfulness comes through in the smooth efficacy of each angle taken. That being said, the choreography isn’t too balletic, which is a big gripe I have with a lot of modern action films. Instead, the movements are jagged, harsh, giving the violence a sense of authenticity that grounds viewers in a particular moment and raises the stakes. I’m also a big fan of the lighting and use of color, which often moves toward a kind of expressionism, eschewing reality to get us closer to a character’s thoughts and emotions. This prioritization of interiority is again visible in the numerous POV shots that help us literally see from the characters’ perspective. Even the focus pulling is so precisely tied to a particular state of mind. Such intimacy also shapes the sound design, which plays with various levels of distortion and muffling to reflect the Kid’s experience. It’s astounding how Patel was able to direct so precisely, making sure the camera and actors hit their marks while also juggling so much choreography and interiority, which brings me to the acting.

            Despite his character’s name being so reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s iconic Man with No Name, Patel’s portrayal of The Kid is anything but a rehashing. Capturing intense trauma and emotion within the subtleties of his facial features, Patel builds an entire world for viewers to explore. Physicality is key to this role, and he did a wonderful job in each fight scene, infusing his character with the wild energy we’d expect from someone who’s backed into a corner with nothing to lose. His fighting style develops and changes after joining a group of trans revolutionaries to further highlight his character growth, a choice from which all subsequent action movies should take notes. All this great work is backed by a wonderful supporting cast; Sobhita Dhulipala’s Sita is more than a mere romantic interest, which is what women are notoriously reduced to in this genre. Instead, she does a lot for expanding our understanding of how women and marginalized people, like sex workers, are treated. The more we get of her, the more we understand just how this system functions: by exploiting society’s most vulnerable sectors to gain more power, not caring whose life is ruined in the process. Vipin Sharma’s performance as Alpha, the leader of a trans revolutionary community, is another highlight for me; after finding and caring for a wounded Kid, Alpha’s strong faith and resilience not only provide a stark contrast to the world that is, but give us hope for the world that can be. Through Alpha’s character, we get a lot of nuance added to how the film handles questions of religion and nationalism.

             In a poll published last year, only 13 out of 30,000 Indians surveyed identified as atheist. Because the vast majority of the population identifying as Hindu, a lot of religious minorities like Buddhists and Muslims suffer from persecution which can and has often turned violent. Much like in the USA, this extremism has provided fertile ground for right wing manipulation, leading to the current Hindu nationalist administration which is parodied in the film by the ‘Sovereign Party,’ a staunchly religious political group connected to police violence and corruption. While it’d have been easy for the movie to simply present this critique, Patel instead includes a moment where Alpha explains to Kid how the goddess their community worships occupies both male and female aspects which inspires them to continue being themselves even while actively targeted by government forces. This moment, along with Kid himself being driven by a love of God which was passed down by his mother, shows the duality of religion in Indian society and the world in general: it can be cynically manipulated by capitalists and power-hungry charlatans, but it can also be something nourishing which provides meaning to those who need it most, driving them to fight for a better world. This element of the script was fascinating, and was explored very beautifully alongside the question of violence. Rather than resurrect the liberal framework of violence as something that is bad in general, the film’s logic acknowledges violence, like religion, as something that can be used for either liberatory or oppressive purposes depending on the class that wields it.

            With a script this smart, acting this committed and visuals this stunning, it’s safe to say Dev Patel’s directorial debut is a roaring success. This bold, high-octane roller coaster will keep you on the edge of your seat while making you think, which is my favorite type of film. There’s also one fight scene I’d place alongside the infamous hallway brawl in Oldboy (2003). Monkey Man swings into theaters today, and your weekend will be better if you watch it.


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