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(For its 31st edition, the SXSW Film & TV Festival will host nine days of screenings from March 8-16, 2024. Check out Chris Reed’s Monkey Man movie review. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

Horror and sci-fi have long succeeded in commenting on the world at large, and Dev Patel’s Monkey Man proves there is no reason why violent action movies cannot do the same. In his directorial debut, Patel gives us blood, guts, and a huge amount of fight choreography, all in the service of a tale that also serves as a condemnation of ethno-religious fascism. Imagine John Wick battling societal corruption in India at its root and you’ll have an idea of what to expect.

Patel (The Personal History of David Copperfield) not only wrote and helmed this epic saga, but stars, as well. His character may have no name beyond the titular one—which he dons, along with a mask, in the MMA ring—but he comes complete with a tragic backstory to motivate the vengeance he will soon mete out against the movie’s villains. In a prologue, we meet him as a boy, learning from his mother about the Hindu monkey god Hanuman, cursed to forget his superpowers until something would cause him to remember. This mythical narrative, minus the supernatural element, undergirds our hero’s own journey.

When next we encounter him, he is the adult Patel, fighting with a monkey mask, whose job is to lose each match as messily as possible (the more blood, the more money). The fight promoter (Sharlto Copley, Ted K) is less than satisfied with the performance, however, leading Patel to seek extra work to better make ends meet. This leads him to encounter the man who killed his mother (a history unfolding in a series of flashbacks), now the local chief of police. With a newly purchased gun, Patel sets out to dispatch the man in a club bathroom. Only things don’t quite go as planned.

That major plot point—which includes the setbacks leading to additional training and eventual triumph—is set against the rise of right-wing Hindu nationalism. The police chief may be the most immediate antagonist, but behind him are other forces, one spiritual leader in particular. That guru sponsors the leader of the “Sovereign Party,” who will probably win the country’s next presidential election. He not only pushes reactionary reprisals against all who oppose religious orthodoxy, but has a history of genocidal impulses. Monkey Man, in other words, has more on his plate than just one kill.

The political and ideological subtext brings us at one point into the company of a threatened trans community that offers refuge to a wounded Patel (after that botched initial revenge attempt). They provide not only safe harbor but a support network that helps him get on his feet again. He returns the favor, and they then back him in the climactic conflict. Patel as director blends the attacks on them with those on other minority groups, including Muslims. It’s worthy and well-intentioned, though some of it feels muddled, not fully developed enough to be a truly meaningful critique.

As serious as some of the issues he tackles may be, Patel also takes great pleasure in the elaborate violence of each set piece. Fit and wiry, he twists and turns, jabs and stabs, cocks and fires, and leaps and kicks with verve and skill, easily claiming the action-star label and delivering adrenaline-fueled thrills. If one likes the kind of dark humor embedded in the utter ridiculousness of elaborate collateral damage and murder, there are also plenty of laughs. If not all the polemical punches land with exact precision, the physical ones mostly do. Welcome to director’s chair, Mr. Patel. May this new stage of your career prove long and fruitful.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

2024 SXSW Film Festival; Monkey Man, Dev Patel

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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