Freeman Cebu Entertainment

‘Monkey Man’ is a socio-political action film worth watching

Januar Junior Aguja - The Freeman

When audiences watch “Monkey Man”, they are reminded of “John Wick” as both films showcase hyper-stylistic action scenes. This is not lost on Dev Patel (who stars, co-writers, and directs) when his character named Kid bought a gun from an underground merchant.

The seller tells Kid, “This is the same gun used in the John Wick movies”, referring to the Heckler & Koch P30. Patel knew these comparisons would be inevitable, so the movie might as well throw in a reference.

But that’s where the similarities end. The story does not copy the Keanu Reeves-led action franchise. Instead, it’s a modern interpretation of the Hindu deity named Hanuman.

The film starts with Kid’s mother Neela telling him the story of the monkey-human hybrid Hanuman, one of the central characters in the Sanskrit epic Ramayana. In it, he helps the lead character Rama rescue his wife Sita. His character is meant to represent courage and strength against corruption.

This story about the Hindu God resonates with him, and he carries it with him as an adult who is on a path of revenge against corrupt spiritual leader-turned-politician Baba Shakti and his minion cop Rana Singh who burned his village and caused Neela’s death.

If you’re familiar with the current political climate in India, you might understand why this movie is controversial. It tackles how corruption in Indian politics caused poverty. It also sheds light on how religion is often weaponized to raise someone’s political profile. It’s not surprising if the rise of the Hindu nationalism movement may have inspired the story.

It was for this reason that Netflix dropped “Monkey Man” from its release schedule. “Get Out” director Jordan Peele stepped in as producer and brought the film to Universal Pictures for theatrical release.

Netflix’s fear of potential backlash in India somewhat came true. As of writing, the film has yet to be released as the country’s censors requested edits. An Indian film critic speculated that its political themes may have caused its delay.

Despite this, it’s a relief that “Monkey Man” is shown on the big screen as the action scenes are worth watching in the cinema. It earned its R-18 rating from MTRCB as its gloriously violent scenes make “John Wick” look like child’s play.

It’s impressive that this is Patel’s directorial debut. The movie felt like it was directed by someone experienced in heavy stunts. His energy in directing matched his performance as the film’s lead. Patel is a criminally underrated actor and it would be nice to see him walk in the path of being a self-directed action star.

“Monkey Man” should also be praised for its inclusivity. Kid meets the hijra community, a group of Hindus who identify themselves as transgender. They help Kid reconnect with his Hanuman roots.

Hijras played a huge role in Hinduism lore and the history of South Asia. In a 2011 Indian census, there are over 480,000 transgender people. While they have slowly gained legal recognition, and public attitudes towards the hijras are more accepting, they still face possible repercussions and this is tackled in “Monkey Man.”

It’s clever that the film highlights the existence of the marginalized community without being too preachy, incorporating them as an important plot point in the protagonist’s journey to vengeance without ‘tokenizing’ them.

Using the action genre to explore sociopolitical themes in India is impressive in that its messaging feels effortless. Often, the action in movies like “Monkey Man” is heavily marketed. Understandably, this is what brings people to the cinemas.

But an actioner is best remembered when it has interesting commentary throughout its plot. We need more films that encourage viewers to think about our world outside once they step out of the cinema.

These political themes may also resonate with the Filipino audience as corruption in politics and oppression against marginalized communities are topics that are all too familiar.

The messaging of “Monkey Man” is strengthened by the intense, edge-of-your-seat action sequences and the acting from its lead. We have to thank Peele for seeing Patel’s vision as a potential hit. Four stars out of five.

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