Monkey Man – Review The Global Tofay

Monkey Man – Review The Global Tofay Global Today

Dev Patel’s impressive directorial debut, Monkey Man, is a film full of hyperbolic contrasts. A seven foot fighter, built like a barrel, towers over his scrawny opponent in the ring. Glass and steel skyscrapers light up the sky in the way that the corrugated iron roofs of the slums never could. Lamborghinis and Ferraris fill a car park whilst children sleep on the side of the road. The fresh air and crystal clear rivers of rural villages are contrasted with the sleazy neon of the fictional city of Yatana.

And it’s these stark juxtapositions that elevate the film from “standard” revenge thriller to something that is steeped in culture, class and religion. It feels like an exploration of both personal and national trauma, steeped in centuries of injustice and incomprehensible politicking.

Monkey Man centres around the Kid (Dev Patel, who also co-wrote the film), a young man with mysterious wounds on his hands and no mention of his past. He moonlights as a fighter in a monkey mask but officially works in an upscale club-come-brothel, where some of Yatana’s biggest VIPs overindulge in every possible vice. The inequities of life are all around him, as he sleeps in a room packed full of other adults barely eking out a living. Noticing that police chief Rana (Sikandar Kher) is a regular at his place of employment, the Kid gets flashbacks to his traumatic childhood and sets out on a path of bloody, messy revenge.

With a film like this, the expectations for the violence levels are pretty high. Patel leans into this, with tongue in cheek remarks about buying a gun because it featured in the new John Wick. There are several different kinds of violence on display, here, too. There’s the implied sexual violence of the brothels (high class or otherwise); the violence towards minority groups; the violence towards the poor; the violence of fringe politics; and, of course, the violence of revenge. It has to be said that Monkey Man does a fantastic job of exploring all of these, giving each part of the Kid’s life its fair share of screen time and fleshing out.

The actual fist-to-face type of violence that he experiences in the ring is accompanied by dingy yellow lighting, ceaselessly swirling camerawork and the occasional sound of a bone cracking. It’s visceral, messy, unpolished. It belies the Kid’s grit and resilience – life is literally dealing him blow after blow but somehow, he keeps getting back up. Patel establishes himself as a convincing action lead, sinewy and lean, with a look of “nothing to lose” written all over his face.

However, two big “set piece” action sequences stand out in particular. The first is that of a group of trans fighters – in colourful Diwali robes – beating the shit out of a number of nameless goons. Patel luxuriates in the swirl of their saris, allowing the glint of both sequins and blades to dazzle. The second is a hand-to-hand confrontation between the Kid and Rana, in which Patel interestingly uses no sound other than the swipe of their polished shoes on the floor or a blow landing on a body. It’s really impactful in its stripped back approach. There are no distractions, it’s just revenge in its purest form.

But all of these combat scenes are tempered with themes that are much more human and raw. As a young boy, the Kid watches his mother murdered by Rana, set alight as she gasps her last breaths. His village is destroyed on the orders of a man who presents himself as holy and peaceful. His trauma is deep and lasting, not least because injustice and inequality are inescapable in Yatana. Children sleep on cardboard at the side of the road whilst flashy sports Monkey Man cars roar past. Grubby men decked out in gold rings count their rupees in the garish neon of their brothels. A small, peaceful trans community is forced into the shadows, constantly under threat from those who do not want them as part of society. Pockets are lined and palms are crossed but nothing ever truly changes for those at the bottom of the caste system. The Kid identifies with this “otherness”, being neither rich nor belonging to anyone or anywhere in particular. It gives fantastic culture-inspired layers of nuance to a genre that is well-thumbed.

There are also small moments of levity – have you ever seen someone get their face kicked in to the dulcet tones of Boney M – that give you a bit of a breather in amongst all of the heaviness enveloping the rest of the film. This is a very interesting take on the revenge thriller, with Dev Patel giving a layered, compelling central performance that really has you rooting for the underdog (or should that be monkey?).

Monkey Man is now screening in UK cinemas.

Mary Munoz
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