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2024 SXSW Festivals Film

‘Monkey Man’: Plenty of hits and a few missed punches

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Poster for Dev Patel’s Monkey Man.

It would be an understatement to say that SXSW 2024 was thick with the air of Monkey Man. The fervor for the premiere was as pervasive and mysterious as the cryptic legend the film is based on. Jordan Peele famously picked the film up from Netflix and gave it a theatrical release, which was enough to create infinite buzz for Dev Patel’s directorial debut. And from all the promo, what was not to love about an ultra-violent action revenge film adapting the tale of Hanuman, the half-monkey, half-human Hindu deity?

Monkey Man is the story of an unnamed protagonist known as “Kid” who brutally loses his mother from a corrupt police raid. This unresolved trauma manifests as a perpetual streak of violent training in underground fight clubs in the hopes of achieving Kid’s honor-bound desire for revenge. It’s a pretty typical story elevated by a depiction of India through its nocturnal working class hubbub, activated spiritualism, and compromised reckonings of power.

Dev Patel’s Kid is an absolute unit to behold, fulfilling many testosterone-addled underdog fantasies by watching him struggle, but steadily climbing up the ranks by building up his own inner strength. The instant his first fight plays out, Patel’s screen power is immense. In a way, just as Kid grapples foe after foe and emerges victorious, Patel reclaims his own filmic identity by boldly stepping into a larger than life heroic role (outside of The Green Knight, of course, which you should definitely have watched by now!).

Hanuman.

However, there is a limit to all this violence. It’s really easy to have a reductive impression of the film and say, “it’s just John Wick in Mumbai.” Although I disagree with such a rote comparison, in the context of the vengeance-fueled brutality, there’s not much new to see here. Arguably, the explorative camerawork oeuvre of the more recent John Wick films are worth the price of admission alone. But Monkey Man often stumbles delivering legible fight choreography. The high-octane stunt work of 90s Hong Kong action films and The Raid are certainly what the film is going for, but it’s rare that these homages are received. That said, the final act adrenaline rush is definitely satisfying in spite of everything before it, as well as one particularly toothsome scene.

While Dev stands tall, many compelling characters are swallowed up by his shadow. I am aware enough as a red-blooded person on this earth that Dev Patel is the star, the director, the writer, and the giant object of affection. Yet somehow in a two hour long film, there doesn’t seem to be enough oxygen for the other characters to take the space I wanted them to. Alphonso (Pitobash) has little to do but comic relief. Alpha, played by Vipin Sharma, initiates a healing/training sequence that was one of my favorite parts of the film, but is only seen again in a Dev-focused fight scene. It’s the missed potential of these characters helping Dev carry the narrative load that is really gutting for me.

Before the film had begun, Patel had stated, “I think the action genre has sometimes been abused by the system. I wanted to give it real soul, real trauma, real pain…” and while it’s a noble effort, it’s rather pretentious to say that there is a qualifier for real action films. To give some context, Road House and The Fall Guy, two of 2024’s biggest action releases, premiered alongside it during SXSW. Monkey Man is undoubtedly attracting the same audience and signaling some type of divide. Perhaps the criticism is targeted more for the studios — that I can understand. But molding action junkies into Criterion level film snobs the way Marvel turned comic nerds into insufferable online critics is not appealing. Another path to bridge fans together and learning from each other’s influences exists.

I would love to say there are other heartwarming, breathtaking moments in the film for variety, but Monkey Man is not a film that wants to be much more than what it tells you. I honestly can’t remember too much else and perhaps the disgustingly long lines at the festival and the combative, overly interruptive crowd at the Paramount Theater were a bit too much for me to fully concentrate. At the end of the day, Monkey Man is just a film a lot simpler than many want it to be, myself included.

Rating: 3 / 5


Monkey Man is in theaters now.

This film was reviewed as part of our 2024 SXSW coverage. Click here for more articles from the festival.

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