‘Monkey Man:’ blending cultural representation with brutal revenge

By Ben Konuch

“In this city, the rich don’t see us as people. To them, we’re animals.”

(Editor’s note: “Monkey Man” is a mature film that contains moments of intense violence and grapples with adult themes such as human trafficking, religious persecution and attacks on LGBT minorities. The author of this article notes that some of these topics and the way they are presented may not be for everyone, but for some, there is great worth in asking its questions. The film is not recommended to younger viewers or those who are triggered by such themes)

It’s hard to be a fan of action films in a post “John Wick” world. Every action sequence filmed with a grounded focus, every intense fight scene with brutal choreography and every film that aims to blend slick style with gritty fights is compared to Keanu Reeves’ famous franchise. I heard those comparisons made when the first trailer for Dev Patel’s directorial debut, “Monkey Man,” came online a few months ago. Its trailer did display a similar genre to the action-thrillers that “John Wick” reinvented, but watching this film is so much more than just another action thriller. 

“Monkey Man” is a blending of two cultures – and filming styles – into one. It’s a story of mythology and capitalism, a film that aims to represent a culture and expose its good and bad parts to the world. And yes, it’s a gritty, violent revenge thriller, but it knows that less is more, and to sell an audience on a story, you may have to use your action sparingly or else viewers will become desensitized to it. 

Written by, directed by and starring Dev Patel, “Monkey Man” follows the journey of an anonymous young man on a quest for revenge against a powerful official responsible for the brutal murder of his mother. What starts as a selfish quest for murder becomes a greater fight against a greater foe, as the young man seeks to dismantle the corrupt order of power in India and becomes a figurehead for those who have been abused and oppressed by the rich and the gluttonous. Embracing the moniker of a mythological warrior, the young man must climb his way out of the gutter to reach India’s wealthiest heights in order to tear down the rulers who are building their power and fortunes on the broken backs of those they are supposed to protect.

 “Monkey Man” is part slow-burn thriller, part intense action and a sprinkling of a protest film mixed in for good measure. It’s a simple story premise, but the execution is what makes it spectacular. This isn’t just a self-indulgent revenge thriller, it is no John Wick killing dozens of assassins because of the death of his dog. This is the story of frustration at injustice reaching a boiling point where righteous rage is the only answer. It’s a fight not just for the protagonist’s mother, but the very nature of a world where his mother is just one of millions who are beaten, stepped on and discarded when those with more power deem it inconvenient. Its story has an earnest heart to it, and though it isn’t perfect, it gives a refreshing investment into the story and culture the film asks us to become immersed in.

Dev Patel shines as a man turned into a myth willing to give up his humanity to dismantle the oppression of the status quo.

The film takes its time to get into the violence as well, which I greatly appreciated. The first 20 minutes of the film had us watching a man carefully planning and constructing a murder, manipulating corrupt officials and human traffickers just to get into a room where he could pull a trigger, in such a way that I was on the edge of my seat. It makes you wonder what would push a man to this point, and more importantly, what kind of monster is deserving of such a fate. 

When we finally find the answers to these questions, it turns “Monkey Man” into one of the most intense, violent thrill rides I’ve ever seen in a theater. Yet it never bashed the violence into my face, and it never used it so frequently that its cost and impact both on the characters and the viewers is ever lost.

Part of what makes this film so intense is how it’s crafted. The fight choreography is fantastic, grounded and gritty. Closeup shots and shakycam are used alongside broad camera, “one-shot” action sequences to either keep you at arms’ length from the violence or force you to be right up in it. 

Some moments of tense hand-to-hand fighting are set to a few very odd song choices that somehow end up working spectacularly, and the film’s original soundtrack knows exactly when to blast you with adrenaline-pumping music and when to give you nothing but silence and the sounds of life struggling against death.

What makes “Monkey Man” so special in light of all these strengths, though, is that it isn’t a story for us. It’s a story presented to us as a Western audience, yes, and is one that we can relate to or enjoy. But this film is the story of another culture, infused in every step with love, care and authentic honesty from the people who call that culture theirs. It’s a love letter to East-Asian martial arts films and an even greater one to the people of all walks of life who call India their home. It’s a presentation of what makes their home and their culture something unique while also exposing its failings and calling for change.

It isn’t a perfect film. The second act drags along too slowly and offsets the pacing, and the protagonist could be fleshed out far more. Yet, “Monkey Man” remains a captivating, mesmerizing thrill ride with something important to say, and stands unique with how it’s said.

I give “Monkey Man” an 8/10

“Monkey Man” is now showing in theaters.

Ben Konuch is a junior Strategic Communication student and one of the A&E editors for Cedars as well as the social media lead. He enjoys getting sucked into good stories, playing video games and swing dancing in the rain.

Images courtesy of Universal Pictures.

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