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  • Writer's pictureSaxon Whitehead

'Monkey Man': An Intense, Audacious Directorial Debut from Dev Patel

I am always intrigued when an actor decides to take the plunge and direct a movie, mainly because it usually yields fascinating results. Sometimes you get something that feels fresh and exciting (Jordan Peele's Get Out, Rob Reiner's This is Spinal Tap), sometimes you get something strange and unexpected given the person directing it (Ryan Gosling's Lost River, Antonio Banderas's Crazy in Alabama), and sometimes you get an outright disaster (William Shatner's Star Trek V, pretty much any of James Franco's directorial efforts). The possibility of where any film from actors turned directors may land always piques my interest, and this is certainly the case with Monkey Man, the directorial debut from Dev Patel.

Patel has been one of my favorite actors for some time now, and when I found out that he was going to direct an action film, I was very curious to see how it would turn out. Considering that Patel isn't typically associated with action movies, I found it interesting that he would choose this genre for his first film. Add in the fact that the film is a dark, brutal tale of revenge, and it seems like a bit of a tall order for a debut feature. Against all odds, Dev Patel ends up pulling this film off, delivering a first film that is thrilling, intense, and feels rather personal for him. It is a spectacular action film at its core, but has so many interesting layers and themes that it is hard to believe this is his first time in the director's chair. It is a fully-formed debut, and instantly asserts Patel as one of our most promising new directors.

In the fictional city of Yatana, India, a young man known as Kid (Dev Patel) earns a meager living by participating in an underground fight club. Night after night, he dons a gorilla mask and is beaten up by other fighters, constantly losing every match in order to make money. When he finds a way to get revenge on those who ultimately put him in this dire situation, he begins to infiltrate the dark underbelly of the city's elite. This leads Kid on a journey of vengeance that sees him confronting some of Yatana's most powerful figures, as well as his own childhood trauma. With every twist and turn along the way, Kid begins to find the strength within himself, and the power to stand up to those who took everything from him.

If nothing else, Monkey Man makes the case for Dev Patel to be a full-fledged action star. He depicts Kid's simmering rage so well, and he is excellent in the film's major fight sequences. He doesn't have much dialogue in the film, but he conveys so much pain, anger, and frustration through his facial expressions and his actions. There is such control in how he expresses the complex feelings and trauma the character experiences, yet Patel's performance feels so natural. There is a humanity that shines through his performance, which makes his quest for revenge all the more powerful. It is easy to lose sight of this in most action films, but as actor and director, Patel wisely brings a level of vulnerability to the table, and it enhances the film around him. The arc of the character is rather compelling as well, and takes the audience on a gripping journey as he finds his inner strength. Patel has proven himself as an actor many times before, but this is easily some of his finest work.

On the directing side of things, Patel truly shows that he has an eye for film. I can't help but feel that he was inspired by Oldboy and John Wick (among other action films), and while he wears these influences on his sleeve a bit, he does twist them a bit and makes them his own. So much of this film feels like it couldn't have been made by anyone but Patel, and his direction is so strong throughout. This story feels so personal to him, especially when it gets to the film's third act. There is an urgency to this film, which gives it some serious momentum. It moves quickly, utilizing visual storytelling to dispense exposition and keep the film rolling. Some of the directorial choices that Patel makes feel a little on the nose, but most of them still end up serving the film rather well. At the very least, Patel uses these choices to help the film flow efficiently, so I can't complain too much about that. His work behind the camera makes this film a truly impressive debut, and I sincerely hope he is given the opportunity to make more movies and further refine his craft.

I am not well-versed on Indian politics, so I can't speak much on some of the sociopolitical commentary that Patel is making with this film. What I can say is that I'm surprised at how pointed it is, and that it is such a major part of the film. The film touches on poverty, inequality within the Caste system, and nationalism, and also features a group of trans women who help Kid out in the back half of the film. It makes me wonder how this film might play in India, since it is rather critical of the current state of the country, as well as its current prime minister Narendra Modi. Again, I can't speak much on how effective the comments Patel and co-writers Paul Angunawela and John Collee are making here, but it adds an interesting layer to the film nonetheless.

The film is so stylish, utilizing quick editing and sharp camerawork all throughout. This is especially true in the film's big action sequences, which are stunningly shot and edited to maximize their intensity. The spectacle of the film is outstanding and often unflinchingly brutal. In particular, there is a scene late in the film that takes place in an elevator that made my jaw drop with how inventive the violence is. Beyond that, the sound design for the film is quite solid, as is the use of music in the film. The film features rap, metal, and electronic music in addition to Jed Kurzel's score, and the music choices fit the film like a glove. I also appreciated a scene in which a character drums while Kid is using a punching bag. I won't give away many details, but the drumming is used so well in the scene and adds so much to it. There is a slight scrappiness to how the film is presented, but that is part of its charm. It has a harsh and unrelenting exterior, but there is some serious truth and emotion underneath the surface, which takes the film to a whole other level.

Monkey Man is such a strong debut feature from Dev Patel, and is one of the boldest debuts I've seen from anyone in recent memory. The action sequences are spectacular, and its layers of trauma and sociopolitical commentary give it some interesting depth. This is the type of film that someone makes when they don't know if they'll get another chance to make another one. It is an audacious film, but Patel's direction is so assured, and he certainly proves himself as a filmmaker in the process. It is a deeply fascinating film, and easily one of the most exhilarating films of the year so far. Monkey Man is a dark, powerful action film that packs quite a punch, and is sure to leave quite an impact.

Rating: 4/5

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