Monday, April 8, 2024

Monkey Man: A Review



I am somewhat aware of the John Wick universe, though I have seen only the final film in the franchise. It apparently has been influential in the action film genre, for I have seen many comparisons between the John Wick films and Monkey Man. Dev Patel does triple duty as writer, director and star for Monkey Man. At each job, Patel bites off more than he can chew, creating a film that drowns in its self-importance.

The Kid (Patel) has been earning a living as an underground fighter billed as "Monkey Man", the matches overseen by Tiger (Sharlto Copley), the sleazy ringmaster. Monkey Man takes the punches against stronger opponents, and the money is just enough to keep his master plan going.

That master plan is to take down Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher), a corrupt cop and Baba Shanti (Makarand Deshpande), a powerful guru to the political elite. Over the course of the film, we learn that both are involved in the Kid's mother's death and the expulsion of his community. He manages to infiltrate the upper levels in which Rana runs via an exclusive club. Now billing himself as Bobby, he gets some help from Alphonso (Pitobash), whom I qualify as his frenemy at the club. Ultimately, Bobby manages to only wound Rana, forcing him to flee as all the police force chases after him.

Bobby manages to survive his brutal escape, where he falls in with a group of hijras, transgender women who offer Bobby shelter and a chance to train. Bobby now works to go back to inflict his very bloody revenge on Rana and Baba Shanti come hell or high water.

I have an instinctive reaction against films that are self-consciously artsy. Monkey Man is so obsessed with being so visually arresting that one is in danger of getting seasick during some sequences. Patel as a director loved giving audiences running sequences where we see the camera flowing hither and yon. There are so many scenes where, as a director, Patel indulges some grand visual efforts. One sequence involves stealing a cellphone and how it is transported eventually to The Kid. It, like so much in Monkey Man, served only to call attention to itself, to show how allegedly incredible every sequence is.  

A very curious moment is when Bobby is training. He stops, sits and rips his shirt open. Fine, let Dev Patel show us what a nice body he has. Bobby then rips open his chest to reveal his heart. I get that this is all symbolic, but it just strikes me as all so silly. Over and over, Monkey Man seemed set on attempting to impress us with its visual style that it ended up doing the opposite. So much of the film is almost too dark to see. The parts that are visible do nothing but call attention to themselves and show off. 

In more than one way, Monkey Man is nothing unique. Patel uses the standard method of filming an action fight scene with pop or rock music underscoring it. Granted, it is not as overblown as what Argylle put us through, but that is no comfort. I cannot praise a film that uses a remix of Jefferson Airplane's Somebody to Love when attempting to kill the corrupt cop. Contrary to what I hear a lot of my film reviewing brethren, I find it unoriginal. 

Patel, as a writer, might know some of the conventions of action, but did not give some of his actors much to work with. Characters such as Ashwini Kalsekar's Queenie or Pitobash's Alphonso (whom I referred to for most of the film as "Quality Control" because I thought that was his nickname) were not built up enough to be either strong antagonists or frenemies. At two hours, the film seems stuffed and disjointed. We could have cut out Sharlto Copley's character without any major impact. 

Patel, as a director, is fond of flowing camera moments and close-ups. He also let people like Copley ham it up to his heart's content. To be fair, Copley's Tiger was meant to be cartoonish, so perhaps I could cut him some slack. Patel also structures Monkey Man in a curious way. He starts with Kid/Bobby as a child, then shifts him to being the punching bag at Tiger's ring, and only later does he piece together the combined history of Kid and Rana. Patel is pretty one-note as this avenging figure, though again he too was not written to be complex save for a fondness for a stray dog.

A dog tying into both stories may be why I have heard many comparisons between Monkey Man and the John Wick series. I am generally unfamiliar with the John Wick franchise apart from Chapter Four. As such, I cannot confirm or deny such a comparison. With my limited knowledge of it, however, I think Monkey Man was aping the visual style and perhaps the body count factor (no pun intended). However, I actually cared about John Wick. I did not care one bit about Kid/Bobby. 

Monkey Man is probably the most overrated film of the year. I felt as if I was literally trapped inside an arthouse student film. Despite all of that, at least it's better than Argylle


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