Monkey Man sees Dev Patel go ape

Punching its way into cinemas, in part thanks to Netflix’s geopolitical cowardice, MONKEY MAN sees Dev Patel’s directorial push beyond the lazy “John Wick in India” bumper sticker appraisal.

When an Indian orphan’s attempt to take revenge against the corrupt forces which killed his mother and displaced his people goes terribly wrong, he finds himself offered sanctuary and purpose in the most unexpected place.

Written and directed by Patel, MONKEY MAN isn’t coy about acknowledging its most obvious influence. The John Wick movies are referenced as diegetic fact within the world of the movie and it even goes as far as to pair our hero with a dog. It’s here though that the comparison starts to fade. While John Wick deals with a cultural elite, a society above the rest of us where death and violence are tools of honour and retribution. Yes Wick may be seeking revenge for the loss of his beloved dog, but he does so from a position of skill and bountiful resources. MONKEY MAN deals with the lowest of the low and refuses to sugar coat the realpolitik of India’s caste system and the near-Dickensian economic disparities at play in a country where unimaginable opulence and privilege sit side by side with abject poverty and deprivation. Our protagonist – hero would be a stretch – is a man scarred in every conceivable way by the cruelties of his life looking for some kind of retribution against an insurmountable imbalance. Even his soubriquet Monkey Man is taken from the mask he wears as he acts as a punch-bag heel for a local underground fight club run by Tiger (Sharlto Copely).

In some ways, MONKEY MAN is a film of two distinct episodes, a narratively satisfying diptych that takes its inspiration for Part One from John Wick and transforms itself in Part Two into something that more resembles classic western superhero mythology viewed through an Indian social, cultural and spiritual lens. There are elements of Spider-Man, The Punisher and Daredevil at play here but it’s the choices Patel makes in assembling the forces around MONKEY MAN that really make the film stand out.

MONKEY man emerges as a redefined hero with purpose thanks to the kindness of the most marginalised and impoverished of peoples in the city of Yatana, a commune of hijra led by Alpha (Vipin Sharma), the keeper of Ardhanarishvara. The community of Trans outcasts not only help nurse MONKEY MAN back to health, they help him confront and process his trauma, forging the pain and anger into purpose: to strike back at the power-hungry spiritual leader Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande) and his corrupt Police Chief stooge Rana Singh (Sikander Kher), the perpetrators of the village massacre of his youth who now seek to expand their influence across India through puppet politicians.

The film’s overt critique of the national purity populism of the likes of Narendra Modi (the factor which made the movie too hot to handle for original backers Netflix) serves as an emotively potent if somewhat uncomfortable backdrop for the film’s brutal, bruising and bloodily messy violence, which doesn’t pause to reflect on its simple message that brutal violence is the answer and the important thing is to be more brutal than those who seek to oppress you. In reflecting the escalating brutality, MONKEY MAN finds its ending in a poetically bleak sense of nihilism as blood begets blood and the cycle continues like an ultraviolent Saṃsāra.

Score 8/10

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