Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Monkey Man (2024)

Dev Patel 's MONKEY MAN has been the subject of a large amount of hype since it played at SXSW. Hailed by many as the next big thing, the people attending the screening last night were all waiting to be knocked over by what Patel was going to be putting before us. The reaction to the film was much more subdued then I thought it was going to be.

Nominally a revenge story, the film follows Patel's "Bobby" who fights in unsanctioned bare fist fights with a monkey mask. Usually he gets his ass handed to him. It's okay since it gets him the money he needs to live... and to track down the people responsible for the death of his mother.

I'm going to leave it there because ultimately the story makes only the barest amount of sense. Patel may have given us some fantastic sequences, and showed himself to be a directing talent that, with a better script, is destined for great things, but unfortunately, he has made a film where the narrative is as clear as mud.

MONKEY MAN's script is, to put it mildly, a real mess. For at least two thirds of the film nothing is really clear - or makes any real sense. We are not told a great deal, even to the point that we don't really know what he's doing, it looks like a robbery at first, but it's not, until we get a lot of little pieces that we know that he's after the bad cop who killed his mother. How this ties into everything else is tenuous at best.... until it's not and Patel decides to suddenly spell it all out before the final fight. However, by that time we've worked it all out for ourselves and his taking the time to tell us just stops the movie.

It  doesn't help that there are no real characters but cardboard cut outs. It's clear that Patel has everyone in his head, but what he gives us on screen are one note characters we barely know. Everyone has one or two looks rather than real developed characters. We have to do all the work and fill in everyone's back story. When I say that I mean everyone including Patel, who proves himself a truly great actor by taking the nothing of a character his writer side has come up with and turned it into a moving and affecting performance.

The structure of the film is such that its almost two separate films. There is Patel's initial attempt to take out the bad cop, and then there is what happens after his rescue as he prepares himself to try again to take out the powerful guru who is really behind it all. If that sounds out of left field, it is. The whole social commentary that blankets the tale about how the rich and powerful crushing the poor never works and is too threadbare to actually mean anything, if for no other reason than it suddenly is pushed forward in the final third. The guru is barely in the film and his motivations are never made clear until the end and even so, we know nothing other than he's rich and powerful.

Honestly, I would love to discuss the plot's problems in greater detail, but the narrative is so broken that my attempts at trying to explain it made it sound so incredibly stupid that I had to chop them out of this review.

For the most part the way Patel shoots the film is stunning. While I do think he over directs much of the film (it's as if his life depends upon showing us what he can do), he still manages to create a lot of truly stunning sequences, and I mean that beyond the action. Watch the sequences in the exclusive club and they are put together as if they are a grand ballet. The camera tells us way more than the script.  While I am certain Patel will win an Oscar or two, I would be hard pressed to know if it will be for his acting or directing.

As for the action sequences, they all bone crushing bloody affairs. People die horribly. While some of what happens doesn't make sense (biting the knife) we are still carried along by the motion on the screen. To be certain Patel probably should have not used as much handheld shots and framed things to be a bit clearer (the POV/not POV stairway sequence is dreadful), however over all the action is wonderful. We must applaud the fight choreography because several times the audience audibly reacted to the nastiness on screen.

Is MONKEY MAN a bad film?  No. It's a solid, if dramatically messy action film that heralds the arrival of a new director. While it may not reinvent the wheel or be the next big thing, what Patel does next just might be.

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