MONKEY MAN: “John Wick” in an Indian curry sauce [REVIEW]

Monkey Man clearly draws inspiration from John Wick not only in its execution (several scenes bear a familiar resemblance, such as the nightclub brawl) but also in its narrative.

Jakub Piwoński

11 May 2024

Whatever one might say about a character like John Wick, that guy really kicked filmmakers into action. Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves revolutionized the martial arts cinema, spawning a wave of imitators. Following films like Nobody and Boy Kills World, we now have another where an entirely unassuming everyman spectacularly beats down his opponents. Meet Monkey Man.

This is certainly one of the most surprising career pivots I’ve witnessed. Quiet yet possessing an intelligent gaze, seemingly unassuming yet undoubtedly charismatic – Dev Patel, the popular British actor of Indian descent, has transformed from a modest guy into a veritable killing machine. We mostly knew him from safe dramas. He ventured into broader acting waters with Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire and has been on an upward trajectory since. Apparently, he wanted a change. Particularly on screen, as he has long seen himself as a martial artist, actively practicing taekwondo since 2000.

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With Monkey Man, the surprise is threefold. Firstly, the lead role is played by an actor not typically associated with action cinema. Secondly, that same actor directs the film, marking his feature-length directorial debut. Thirdly – as if that weren’t enough – Dev Patel also wrote the screenplay. This is truly authorial cinema, all done on a modest $10 million budget! It’s worth noting that one of the producers, director Jordan Peele (of Us), liked the film so much that he assisted with its theatrical distribution – originally, Monkey Man was slated for Netflix.

Monkey Man clearly draws inspiration from John Wick not only in its execution (several scenes bear a familiar resemblance, such as the nightclub brawl) but also in its narrative. Once again, the protagonist’s relentless beatdown of bad guys stems from an overwhelming need for revenge. The revenge motif in action cinema works well, as many knew before, exemplified by Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy. In Monkey Man, the protagonist wasn’t imprisoned, nor was his wife or dog killed. However, he lost his mother in childhood.

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The assailant’s face imprinted so deeply in his memory that in adulthood, he sets out to confront his mother’s killer. The protagonist of Monkey Man is thus a young man navigating the criminal underworld to satisfy his thirst for vengeance. His means to this end are his fighting skills, honed regularly through participation in dubious tournaments. As a masked figure, he often loses because that outcome is more profitable. However, as a vengeful avenger, he seeks ultimate victory.

Somewhere within the narrative landscape, one can discern references to Hanuman, the Hindu deity with a monkey face, primarily known for his heroic role in battling a certain demon. However, these allusions don’t significantly deepen the story but rather serve to fortify the protagonist’s motivation. I’m not a fan of this solution, nor of the overly sentimental, excessive emphasis on the character’s trauma and attachment to his mother.

Overall, it seems Dev Patel made a fundamental mistake by attempting to amplify the message to carry not only revenge but also some positive takeaway. Therefore, Monkey Man is laden with religious suggestions, as well as being a story of strong societal impact – highlighting stark material disparities between rich and poor in India, which many will see as a strength. However, I’m unsure if these elements suit the story.

Yet something tells me that Monkey Man is primarily a personal statement. Patel likely wanted to unleash the remnants of youthful anger buried within him. Who knows, maybe he still feels like a small (wronged?) boy in life, hidden behind various stage personas. By showcasing his martial arts skills, he expressed the pain of existing in a world filled with injustices, drawing inspiration from Hindu mythology and… Keanu Reeves’s successes in the action film domain. I appreciate the effort.

The result is something very energetic, efficiently shot, with some brilliant scenes. However, everything that was meant to deepen the story, in my view, detracted from the spectacle, slowing its pace. Because Monkey Man, viewed mainly through the lens of its genre’s principles, is already a satisfying work. Yet it lacks the necessary lightness that determines whether we return to this kind of cinema after years.

Jakub Piwoński

Jakub Piwoński

Cultural expert, passionate about popular culture, in particular films, series, computer games and comics. He likes to fly away to unknown, fantastic regions, thanks to his fascination with science fiction. Professionally, however, he looks back more often, thanks to his work as a museum promotion specialist, investigating the mysteries of the beginnings of cinematography. His favorite film is "The Matrix", because it combines two areas close to his heart - religion and martial arts.

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