Sun. May 26th, 2024

Image: Movie Poster via IMDb

In 2008, Dev Patel gave his first ever performance in a film as the lead of Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire.” It would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture and, along with his role in the controversial UK teen show “Skins” (2007-2011), make Patel a star. Now, 16 years later, Dev Patel is again treading new ground — this time from behind the camera — by directing (as well as writing, producing alongside Jordan Peele and starring in) the action-thriller “Monkey Man” (2024). Patel’s first effort demonstrates a lot of future promise, but, like many debut features, suffers many hiccups along the way. Don’t be mistaken, though: despite its issues, “Monkey Man” proves a genuine first step in a new filmmaker’s journey rather than just another successful actor’s vanity project.

“Monkey Man” is the story of Kid, a poor man with a troubled past who carves out a meager living as an unsuccessful fighter at an underground boxing club. Known for fighting with a monkey mask over his face, Kid suddenly finds an opportunity to seek the revenge he’s been craving since childhood. With the help of some unexpected allies, Kid punches, kicks, stabs and slices his way through corrupt police and exploitative politicians, all while going on a journey of personal discovery and becoming a symbol for those suffering under the boot of state fascism. 

The film sits heavily in the shadow of the “John Wick” franchise, clearly taking inspiration from its neon lighting, fast-paced and bloody fight choreography and themes of all-consuming revenge. At a certain point, however, its influence becomes a fault. A lot of what felt unique and interesting in this film was quickly buried beneath the “Wick” homage. A few shots caught my eye, but the majority of the film doesn’t frame what’s playing out on screen in a particularly remarkable way. The lack of risk in its visual execution was a persistent reminder that “Monkey Man” is a directorial debut.

 Despite this, the risk shines through in its screenplay. While his visuals may be tepid, Patel takes a huge risk in making vocal advocacy for trans rights the soul of the film, an admirable choice for a first-time filmmaker in today’s climate. He also explores religion and its relationship to identity and peace in a way that left me eager to see him return to those themes in a less conventional future project. Patel takes a swing at evangelism and its connection to oppressive governments, tying everything from police brutality to sex trafficking into his takedown and managing to land all the social commentary successfully. However, after these moments where risk is taken, the movie gets palpable cold feet and quickly returns to its “John Wick” pastiche, afraid of scaring away its audience.

Finding your voice as an artist isn’t easy, and film is one of the hardest artistic mediums to express your voice. As a filmmaker first finding your footing, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of wanting to pay tribute to a movie you love so badly that you end up stifling your own film’s voice to do so. Growing pains are inevitable. Beneath the conventional parts of “Monkey Man,” there’s a filmmaker with real potential trying to find the right voice to speak in and the right story to tell. I really look forward to Patel finding his voice and making something with less restraint. I want him to get weirder and bolder, because the best parts of the film show he’s got that inside of him. And even though “Monkey Man” wasn’t my idea of a perfect movie, I hope it continues to succeed, because I want to see Dev Patel get the time and opportunity he needs to show us why he’s special. The hardest thing an artist has to do is ask the world to take a chance on them, and Dev Patel deserves that chance. There’s a magical future hidden in this lukewarm debut, and there’s nothing more exciting than an artist with room to grow.


Elijah Fischer is a second-year English major.

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