Monkey Man (2024)

Rating: C+

Dir: Dev Patel
Star: Dev Patel, Sikandar Kher, Pitobash, Sharlto Copley

I liked this more than I expected, but not as much as I wanted. It feels very much like a movie which Patel wanted to make for ten years. However, the fact it took ten years to make is perhaps a sign, and it sometimes is clearly obvious that this is Dev’s first feature as a director. At heart, it is your basic revenge story, with “Bobby” (a name adopted by the unnamed hero for convenience) seeking long-delayed vengeance on corrupt police officer Rana (Kher) who murdered his mother. The first attempt doesn’t go as planned, so in line with protocols established by a long line of kung-fu flicks, the hero goes away and trains harder, before coming back for another crack at Rana.

It might have been better to have stuck to that, and also explained the motive for Bobby (Patel) earlier on. As is, this remains murky until well into the second half, making it harder to pull the audience along on his journey. There’s also clumsy attempts at sociopolitical commentary, dropping in an unnecessary secondary villain in the form of politician Baba Shakti, and also adding transgender warriors because 2024. This kind of thing is a mistake the John Wick films never made, and is probably typical of what happens when somebody writes and stars in their first directorial effort. You often get a tendency to overstuff proceedings, and that’s exactly what we have here. It takes a while for film-makers to appreciate, less is often more.

There’s still a decent amount to enjoy. While the footage in the action sequences often tends towards the shaki-cam end of the spectrum, particularly in the early going, the editors – three are listed – keep things coherent. There is a grubby sense of realism to the fights, and Patel certainly paid for it. He suffered broken toes, a torn shoulder and broken hand, also getting an eye infection from rolling around in grubby water during the bathroom fight with Rana. For me, that and the subsequent chase was the action highlight, a kinetic, brutal fire-hose of action. I also liked the supporting cast, including fight promoter Tiger (Copley) and underworld madam Queenie Kapoor (Ashwini Kalsekar), who has a nice line in sweary dialogue.

Part of the problem may be, Bobby is too much of a blank slate, when placed beside these larger than life characters. We never even learn his real name, and he seems almost entirely defined by his vengeance. We never discover, for example, what happened over the decades between the death of his mother, and putting his plan into action. Given this, Bobby’s sudden switch into social activism seems forced and artificial: he hasn’t exactly been a people person up to this point. I think Patel tries to straddle between American and Bollywood cinema, yet ends up being a bit off in both directions. Give me John Wick or give me RRR, since either are superior. Pretty good for a debut though.