SXSW 2024 Review: MONKEY MAN, Dev Patel Is Your New Action Obsession. Get Excited

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SXSW 2024 Review: MONKEY MAN, Dev Patel Is Your New Action Obsession. Get Excited

After sitting in the can for nearly four years, Dev Patel’s directorial debut, Monkey Man, was presented to a rapturous audience at SXSW last night. The film declaring loudly what the man himself was too humble to acknowledge; Dev Patel has the potential to become the future of action cinema, both behind and in front of the camera.

Bringing together elements from contemporary action cinemas from around the world, most notably Korea – think The Man From Nowhere, the films of Ryoo Seung Wan, and others – and Indonesia – plenty of echoes of the pioneering cinema of Gareth Evans and Tumo Tjahjanto’s The Night Comes For Us – Monkey Man combines technical chops with savage critiques of age old divisions in India to create a film so incendiary that it’s a genuine mystery whether or not it’ll find screens there.

Patel is Kid, a nobody from the biggest slum in Asia, who spends his nights getting pummeled in a boxing ring in order to build the resumes of other fighters deemed more worthy of success. Through frequent dreamy flashbacks, we are given access to Kid’s tragic past, which includes a saintly mother taken from him at a young age by a corrupt cop enforcing religious disharmony by burning down his village and his mother with it. Kid’s mission is revenge, and he’s been playing the long game, but when he gets an opportunity to get close, he takes it, and God help anyone who gets in his way.

He discovers a connection between his target, crooked police captain Rana (Sikander Kher), and Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar), the matron of a local luxury oasis in the fictional city of Yatana. He takes a grunt job in the kitchen where he meets small time hanger-on Alphonso (Pitobash), together the two of them begin chipping away at the layers of social status between Kid and Rana. In this quest they discover the links between Kid’s foe and the larger forces at play, a right-wing religious hardline politician (who anyone with a passing knowledge of Indian contemporary politics might quickly connect to India’s current leader) and megalomaniacal Godman played by RRR’s Marakand Deshpande.

The connectedness of the oppressors is key to what makes Monkey Man tick. An overtly political film in a time where such an animal that leans anything but hard right is a fantasy within India itself, Patel is able to craft a film that is critical of power structures that he perhaps didn’t experience firsthand as a British youth, but is perhaps the next best thing to having a homegrown success story. To an outside eye it might seem that the intersectional nature of the criticisms fired at the caste system, religious strife, political corruption, and the complicity at every level of government is a bit heavy handed, but Monkey Man makes it clear that they all exist in terrifying harmony, and the only way to fight one is to fight them all.

Monkey Man is a blatantly unsubtle film, that is one of its greatest charms. The action is ferocious, the characters are huge, and the story is simple; it is built such that fans from any corner of the cinema spectrum can find something to appreciate, if not love about the experience. Patel’s confident and kinetic direction is awe-inspiring, while it definitely has the feel of a first timer throwing everything in the mix just in case they don’t get another chance, the miraculous thing is that the vast majority of the ingredients work, with only a few bits that require further honing.

The true show stopper – and the reason this film will benefit greatly from the theatrical experience – is the stunning action. Patel takes the Korean and Indonesian styles and mixes them with something substantive, a true purpose and real stakes for the character that put us on Kid’s side from minute one. The fights here are down and dirty, not overchoreographed, and have the feel of a character who has nothing left to lose. There is no honor when the knives come out, there is only kill or be killed, and Kid isn’t afraid to take his lumps, just as long as his enemy takes the last one. There is biting, spitting, shooting, all manner of bladed weapons, and a few guns thrown in here and there. However, just because there are no weapons handy doesn’t mean that Kid won’t find a way to make you suffer, and it’s glorious.

In the film, Kid takes inspiration from the Ramayana, one of Hinduism’s foundational texts, and in particular the story of Hanuman, the strongest of the Hindu pantheon, the monkey god who plucked the sun from the sky just because he was hungry. He, like Kid, was born without fanfare, but made something of himself as a strongman. Kid’s journey to power is helped along by a chance encounter with an underground temple of hijras (transgender women) led by Alpha (Vipin Sharma) who teach him to use his inner strength to deal with his external foes. This leads to a rather unique training montage set to the miraculous tabla playing of Grammy winner Ustad Zakir Hussain, and ultimately to the demise of dozens, if not hundreds of bad guys too dumb to get out of Kid’s way.

The action is impressive, but equally important is the collaborative relationship between Patel and his cinematographer, Sharon Meir (Whiplash). The two of them concoct some of the wildest camera moves I’ve seen in a while, switching in and out of traditional action movements, into first person, POV, and a ton of wacky angles that I don’t think even have names yet. The use of color, the motifs of Diwali, darkness and light, the wealth of the big city being reflected in the perpetual damp ground of the slums, covered in piss and industrial runoff. Everything has meaning.

If any criticism is to be leveled at Monkey Man, it is that the pacing can be challenging at times. There is a major fight sequence within the first thirty minutes that feels like it’s setting the tone for the rest of the film. However, from there the film goes into a forty-minute lull of character work and exposition before turning on the jets again. As well as the film works at 113 minutes, it would be revolutionary at 95 or 100. It’s a small nit to pick, but the lack of movement through the second act definitely brings the energy down. Perhaps it was an intentional choice to surprise the audience when the extended climax kicks off, but by that point we know what the film is capable of, and we spend a lot of time just waiting to get back to the good stuff.

It’s very clear that Patel poured everything he has into this film, his blood sweat and tears paint every frame, and if this is him on screen, the world is going to want more stat. Monkey Man is a provocative film that is sure to ruffle feathers if it somehow manages to make landfall in India, but for those of us in other parts of the world, this is some John Wick level shit that you’re not going to want to miss. A calling card for an action connoisseur turned auteur, Monkey Man will be an action yardstick for years to come. It’s rare that a film goes so hard in both its ideology and action execution, and if that turns out to be Patel’s hallmark, we would be lucky to get a career full of brain smashers like Monkey Man. See this movie with a crowd, you’ll thank me later.

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Dev PatelSXSW 2024Paul AngunawelaJohn ColleeSharlto CopleyPitobashActionThriller

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