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‘Monkey Man’ adds soul to action

A man in a monkey mask kicks another man standing in a fighting ring in a scene from “Monkey Man.” “Monkey Man,” Dev Patel’s directorial debut, released Friday. (Universal Pictures via AP)

English actor – and now director – Dev Patel has released his first film as a director, “Monkey Man,” and it is a modern action masterpiece. 

Released Friday, the film follows a young boy from India who is in poverty and forced into the underground fighting scene to make money.

In a tale of heart-pumping revenge, Patel, who also co-wrote the script, takes over acting as the boy about 20 years in the future as he tries to get a job and get payback on the man who killed his mom. 

The film shines in its action scenes where Patel can include the camera in the fight. Often acting like a third character in these scenes, the camera work is fluid, moving under punches and above kicks. 

Patel pairs this with an eye for color, using shadows to depict gloriously beautiful scenes throughout moments where the action is sparse. 

What’s astounding about all of this amazing cinematography is the film is a “small” budget film, with a budget of only $10 million. 

“Monkey Man,” in its first weekend alone, has already out-earned that dismal budget, according to Variety

This is almost entirely due to Patel’s immense effort, both in the production of the film, but also in the tireless press run he is on. 

Patel actually broke his hand while filming a fight scene for this film, he said in an interview on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon

He didn’t have the budget to use VFX to fix his hand nor could he afford to stop production; instead, he opted to have a quick procedure and rewrite all of the choreography he couldn’t do with one hand. 

Paired with last year’s award show darlings “American Fiction” and “The Holdovers,” “Monkey Man” proves the small-budget film is slowly making a comeback after years full of virtually only multi-hundred million dollar blockbusters. 

“Monkey Man,” outside of its small budget and glorious camera making, is a great movie. 

While it’s not the best 2024 release, it is up there for the best releases of this year so far. 

In a runtime of just over two hours, Patel analyzes religion, class, policing and revenge – and does so quite well on most fronts.

The film gets its title from the Indian myth of the Hanuman, the figure whom the character’s alter-identity as a professional fighter is named after. 

This focus on mythology follows throughout the film. After an epic chase scene, Patel’s character wakes up in a temple, and after the final scene of the film, he ponders on a painting that focuses on the mythical monkey man.

More than that, the film has a strong hold on Indian culture. Where most action films use the location as a backdrop for action, Patel centers the location in the film. 

The music throughout the film is Indian music, particularly focusing on tabla music, a type of music based around two tuned drums. The protagonist’s fighting coach is even a tabla player and makes the fighter learn rhythm by following his drum hits. 

The movie doesn’t explain the environment to those who aren’t familiar with it either, rather, it opts to let the viewer discover more as the film goes on.

Overall, whether it be the fluid yet messy – aka real – action, the beautiful visuals of the film or the growing immersion the film offers, “Monkey Man” is captivating.

While it’s not my typical genre, the film goes beyond typical tropes for the genre and develops action into something with a soul. 

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