“What is life? Why is life important?”
Monsters of Man is the story of three highly skilled engineers working for a robotics company and have been taken to Taiwan to set up shop under orders by the CIA. They are to field test four of their model robots with highly advanced AI within the Golden Triangle in hopes of winning some lucrative military contract that would allow the US military to later use these robots in a war setting. The chief of the robotics department within the CIA, Major (Neal McDonough), is the man orchestrating this nefarious operation. The robots are deployed into the jungle to take out the drug cartels that may be lurking within, as the Golden Triangle is one of the world’s largest producers of heroin. But, what they come across isn’t exactly what they planned for when they encounter a team of humanitarian doctors that had traveled into the jungle to provide care to villagers in need, and an ex-Navy Seal that has been living in this village after one of his own missions had gone awry. Major strictly orders the team of engineers to instruct the robots to eliminate all witnesses, therefore Mason and his new team of doctors must fight to survive.
This is a brutal and frequently shocking film with Mark Toia at the helm. Toia is a major player in the commercial and advertising world, directing and shooting some of the most well-known pieces for big-time clients such as Apple, Coca-Cola, and many of the prime auto manufacturers from around the world. This makes sense from the opening frame to the last with how picturesque and beautifully choreographed each and every scene is. Monsters of Man is his feature-length directorial debut in which he wrote, directed, shot, and produced, and to say that is impressive is a major understatement. He claims that the concept for this film was just a hobby, but like all hobbies, they sometimes tend to grow into something a lot bigger and at times unattainable. With a budget of just under $2 million, it’s mind-bending to think about how he made this film. With unbelievable VFX and a very keen eye behind the camera, Mark was able to get the most out of his production values by having a lean team of ambitious professionals behind him. He has been all over the world shooting commercials or advertisements, this well-traveled mindset helped him save money on shooting locations that would provide him with absolutely stunning shots.
So, how did all of this translate to the screen? In my opinion, I would say extremely well. He provided us with a 132-minute action-packed sci-fi thriller that crosses that thin line into horror film territory. High octane action sequences that leave you breathless, from the moment Major says “Go”, this film rarely lets up, only with a few moments to let your hair down and to breathe some life into its main characters. Where the plot may feel a little thin, or some of the characters don’t feel fully fleshed out, there are scenes of absolute chaos to keep you fully engaged. A lot of the time in action films that put the pedal to the metal, there isn’t enough time to have a heartbeat, not enough time to feel any real sadness or sympathy for its characters but Mark found a way to do just that and the film was better for it.
The acting can be a mixed bag at times with some of its characters, but you can tell Toia was able to get the most out of his actors and there were some true standouts here. The character of Mason, played by Brett Tutor was amongst the top tier, he was engaging and brave, he had the most background of any of the characters and we were able to grasp on to the insight of the demons that plagued him through a quite wonderful little satellite story. His emotions were fully believable and were prone to making intelligent decisions ALMOST all the way through. There is one scene that stands out in particular as not being very well thought out, involving a robot being stuck quite literally between a rock and a hard place but is easily forgivable to keep the plot moving. Other standouts of the film were of course Neal McDonough as Major, sharing some simple yet aggressive quips and showing real maniacal emotion toward the end, it is a bit of a mustache-twirling role but engaging nonetheless. Jose Rosete as Boller was evil and intimidating, especially to the three engineers, Kroger (David Haverty), Fielding (Jessica Blackmore), and Jantz (Ryan Hough), who all did fantastic jobs as well. I was also very impressed with young Leap played by Ly Ty, who expressed realistic emotion in horrifying moments, especially for a child actor.
There are a few avenues of tension that ratchet up the suspense and intrigue, including a race against time scenario due to a heavily injured character and a severe predicament containing the three engineers and their family members back home. All of these moments heightened by a wonderfully anxiety-filled score that hangs over these sequences like a dark cloud…or pretty much the entire film for that matter. With these incredibly designed robots hunting down our main characters, we feel completely engulfed in the action right alongside them, with their choppy robotic movements but swift and highly intelligent learning capabilities. We are filled with great dread and can’t help but clinch the edge of our seats. With no real humanistic emotions, they lay savage beatings and fill their murderous appetite with fields full of well-crafted gore and explosions that mimic the production designs of some of the biggest blockbusters.
This is no highfalutin art film think piece, this is a fist-clenching, action-packed joy ride with some of, if not the best production design I’ve ever seen on a low-budget flick. But, for all the praise I have given it for what it was able to accomplish and how much fun it is to be involved in this world, I still do think it’s a tad too long. Cut and edited by Mark himself, he reeled it back from his 5-hour original cut, and that makes me wonder if he had cut out any more character development that would have helped break up the film from some of its repetitive action scenes. The themes of this film are not subtle in any way, capturing what it means to truly be human and when is it right to justify murder, if at all? With a fistful of characters exploring these themes in their own ways. This was another issue for me as well, with a few too many characters we didn’t properly get introduced or delve into each individual as much as I would have liked, nor did we quite get any insight into how one of the robots was learning so much, so quickly. It was brushed over too quickly and became quite muddled.
But, I am gushing over this movie and I think it still definitely deserves championing despite some of its obvious downfalls but from a director on his first time out here, I think Toia will be able to iron out his miscues and come back stronger with a possible sequel or his second feature film regardless. Also, with budget values mimicking that of Blumhouse who seems to have a very successful model, I don’t see any reason why Mark Toia can’t do the same and should be on most genre fans’ radars. I say, welcome to the House of Toia, bring it on and let’s see what more you got!
8/10 Crushed Heads