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‘Hit-Monkey’ will shock you … with just how good it is

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So there’s no denying the pop cultural ubiquity of Marvel these days. The MCU is going strong, with three films already in the past few months and another on the way in December. There has been a wealth of TV content as well, with three different TV shows hitting Disney+ at various points so far this year, with yes, another one on the way.

It’s a lot. And while I acknowledge that I am absolutely here for all of it, I’ll also concede that for those whose brains weren’t steeped in Marvel Comics for their entire adolescence, it might be too much.

That said, one of the perhaps unanticipated benefits of all this too-muchness is that some weird stuff can slip through the cracks and onto our screens.

This brings me to “Hit-Monkey,” the latest episodic offering by way of Hulu. The series – which dropped on November 17 – is an altogether bizarre one, an animated series that focuses on a revenge-fueled snow monkey carving a swath of bloody vengeance through the Japanese underworld as he looks to avenge the death of his tribe, all with the ghost of a wiseacre American assassin as his mentor/sidekick.

Like I said – weird. But perhaps the weirdest part of it all? It’s good. REALLY good.

(Note: All 10 episodes of the season were provided for review.)

An American assassin named Bryce (Jason Sudeikis) arrives in Tokyo. He has been enlisted to take out a prominent politician running for Prime Minister – a job he executes successfully, while the candidate’s advisor Shinji Yokohama (George Takei) narrowly escapes injury, as does speechwriter (and Shinji’s niece) Akiko (Olivia Munn).

Meanwhile, in the mountains, a Japanese snow monkey is struggling to find a place with his tribe. He doesn’t really fit in, but he does his best to build connections with his fellow monkeys. Sure, there are some struggles, but for the most part, it is a relatively idyllic existence.

That peacefulness is blown apart, however, when Bryce, in an effort to escape his pursuers – including agents of those who hired him, seeking to eliminate any kind of trail – makes his way up into the mountains. His injuries are significant, but the monkeys decide to take him in and try to help him heal.

But when Bryce’s pursuers find him, they don’t care about the peaceful nature of these defenseless animals. They gun down their target, killing him, but also take great delight in massacring the entire tribe – all save one, our misfit monkey who happened to be out of harm’s way.

Traumatized by the tragedy, Monkey is bereft – until the spirit of Bryce appears. There is some sort of mysterious connection between the ghost and the monkey, and so, in an effort to gain vengeance for himself, Bryce decides to help teach Monkey the ways of the assassin so that he can punish those behind the destruction of his tribe (and avenge Bryce’s murder as well).

Along the way, Monkey and Bryce (who no one but Monkey can see) cross paths with Shinji and Akiko, as well as Shinji’s rival Ito (Nobi Nakanishi). There are cops both sympathetic and single-minded, as well as numerous nods to an assortment of characters pulled from throughout the Marvel Universe (shout out to Silver Samurai). Relentless but not without a moral code, Monkey shoots, carves and bites his way through Tokyo’s seedy underbelly of organized crime, and while Bryce is initially his sole ally, there will be more who come to his side, even as others mark him for death.

On its face, the premise of “Hit-Monkey” is patently absurd – a snow monkey in sunglasses and a black suit wielding all manner of weapons as a self-styled “killer of killers.” But what series creators/showrunners Josh Gordon and Will Speck have done so brilliantly and simply is … treat it as if it is not, in fact, absurd. The result is a compelling and well-executed dramatic action series that just happens to take place in a world where a monkey shoots guns and ghosts are real.

There’s a very particular style to the animation that’s great fun to look at; vivid and smooth in a way that captures the visceral nature of the brutality but also allows room to humanize (monkeyize?) the characters, grounding them in the midst of outlandish circumstances. And it is BRUTAL – the bloodshed is both steady and significant, with some dynamite fight scenes. I mean, who doesn’t want to watch a snow monkey with a katana?

But the storytelling works as well. It’s frankly incredible how compelling this story is – the overall narrative, yes, but also the interpersonal dynamics at play. This is a story of the darkness that a quest for revenge can inflict on a person, a story of what it means to truly connect, a story about pain and loss and the ways in which we struggle to deal with those things. It is a beautifully-constructed tale; rather than feeling chopped up, “Hit-Monkey” plays as legitimately episodic – you can certainly binge it, but you can also watch it one piece at a time. Each episode carries its own emotional and narrative arc.

The character work here is exceptional is well. Sudeikis absolute crushes as Bryce, giving a perfect voice to this amiable and charming and super shady dude; he’s on point whether he’s delivering quips or heartfelt rejoinders. Takei is great, giving a level of performance that undermines anyone who decries his presence as mere stunt casting. Munn is wonderful, wringing genuine emotion from the ridiculous. The rest of the players are all great, including those playing characters who I will absolutely not be mentioning because this is one show that shouldn’t be spoiled.

(Oh, and a special shout-out to Fred Tatasciore, the voice acting legend who plays the titular beast. You might not think that one can convey subtle meaning through grunts, growls and squeaks, but Tatasciore 100% does just that.)

This is the second Hulu/Marvel offering that I have loved – “M.O.D.O.K.” was also great, but for almost completely different reasons. Whether this oddball offshoot of the Marvel machine continues forward remains to be seen, but I for one hope it does. When you’re talking about something as enormous and far-reaching as the Marvel Entertainment Complex, there should always be a little room left over for the weird, the stuff that doesn’t quite fit in the box.

“Hit-Monkey” sounded like hot nonsense when I first heard about it – a snow monkey assassin with a smartass ghostly American Obi-wan certainly sounds more like a fever dream than a TV series – but when I watched it, man … it’s really good. Shockingly good. Smart and thoughtful, heartfelt and hilarious, emotionally engaging and action-packed, it is simply outstanding across the board.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 16 November 2021 08:29

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