I love a ridiculous premise, so I knew I’d enjoy Hit-Monkey. I just didn’t expect it to be because the show is so good.
Bryce (Jason Sudekis) is an inveterate killer, an assassin without a heart of gold. He loves what he does and by god, he’s good at it. Brought to Tokyo by the Yakuza for the purpose of murdering a popular, Beto O’Rouke-like politician determined to clean up Japan’s corruption, Bryce does his job with professional efficiency. After killing an idealistic young cop during his escape, he heads out of town to a planned meet with his contact. Wounded in the inevitable double-cross, Bryce wanders into the mountains and is rescued on the brink of death by a troop of Japanese macaques. They nurse him to health despite the misgivings of one particular macaque cynical enough to realize the killer’s enemies will come for him. His predictions prove true and our titular hero watches in horror as his family is massacred by the same corrupt military unit that ambushed Bryce. One revenge rampage later, Hit-Monkey is on a hunt for the soldiers’ boss, and Bryce’s tethered spirit is the devil whispering in his ear. Political chief of staff Shinji Yokohama (George Takei) runs in his dead friend’s stead, aided by his niece Akiko (Olivia Munn). At the same time, Hit-Monkey is being hunted by the shadowy organization that hired Bryce in the first place, as well as Lieutenant Ito (Nobi Nakanishi) and Det. Haruka (Ally Maki).
If the premise doesn’t clue you in that this animated monkey show is not for children, the first couple of episodes should do the trick. Deaths are frequent and bloody; one old woman gets longitudinally bisected in a slaughterhouse (don’t worry, she had it coming). Hit-Monkey is reminiscent of Amazon’s Invincible when it comes to gruesome violence and black humor. It’s appropriate for a character invented to be Deadpool’s antagonist, but if you aren’t down for blood and gore, you should move along. Bryce is a very Wade Wilson-like character, though he lacks the movie version’s moral core. A hardcore drinker, gambler, and good-times guy, Bryce talks constantly. He couldn’t ramble more if his ghostly veins were laced with cocaine. Even death doesn’t shut him up. Sudekis’s voice has the high-speed chatter of Ted Lasso laced with the cynicism of his We’re the Millers character, David Clark. It gets annoying a few times, but the writers and Sudekis do a great job keeping Bryce entertaining and this side of intolerable. By the end, of course, Monkey’s awakened something in Bryce he thought long dead.
The rest of the cast is also excellent, particularly Olivia Munn as Akiko, tough-as-nails speechwriter, and Monkey’s love(?) interest. Ann Darrow to Monkey’s Kong, Monkey is drawn to Akiko despite his deep trauma, and his quest for revenge is soon mixed with his desire to keep her safe. Munn’s voice work is top-notch, and she never once sounds like she’s reading from a script, a weakness of many professional American actors when it comes to animation. Her voice is warm and vibrates with emotion at just the right times. I know it sounds ridiculous, but it’s some of her best work. By comparison, George Takei as Uncle Shinji is his normal level of excellent. His baritone is its usual serious tone, though the warmth in his voice when he speaks to Akiko adds depth. Ito, Haruka, Ozu, and the rest of the supporting cast are equally effective. A number of animals get “speaking” roles as well, with their noises translated into English via comic book text boxes, and it works.
And Monkey? His troop is gone. His family, apart from the spirit of his father, who visits like a deeply disappointed Mufasa, is gone. He has no companion but the ghost of the man who set all this in motion. He is a deeply damaged, lonely soul seeking revenge because he has nothing else. But thanks to some gifted animators, he has heart. Anyone who owns a dramatic dog knows how much emotion can be expressed in a wrinkled forehead and shift of the eyebrows. Bryce’s translation of Monkey’s hoots and grunts is hardly necessary because his expression shows every moment of conflict and longing as clear as day. And his loneliness is balanced by the new relationships he makes along the way. One of my favorite aspects of Hit-Monkey is the gallery of lesser-known Marvel characters thrown in as enemies and allies. There’s Fat Cobra, a Chinese super-powered martial artist who’s appeared alongside Shang-Chi, Iron Fist, and Wolverine. Silver Samurai, Logan’s longtime frenemy. Yuki, a Japanese protector spirit. And Lady Bullseye, who would rather kill you than give you the time of day. She’s a terrifying foil for our fast, agile hero. She will kill anyone with anything, and savors every moment of pain.
The artwork is lovely, even in its brutality. The animation is a little jerky for my taste; it’s more stop-motion than smooth, which I assume was a directorial choice. But the visuals and framing are straight out of a graphic novel, to its benefit. Writers Josh Gordon and Will Speck and director Neal Holman pay homage to some of the great samurai, western, and action movies of the past with scenes that feel right at home in a Kurosawa film or spaghetti western. A shootout between Yakuza and military police in a dilapidated apartment is lifted right from Tarantino’s True Romance. And it all works. Oh, the twist is easy to predict and the final fight against the shadowy Yakuza leader is a bit anti-climatic, but it’s all so good they’re easy flaws to forgive.
I expected to write a few hundred words about Hit-Monkey that could be summed up as “a light, airy, fun watch while having a few beers.” I didn’t expect to marathon the first 8 episodes in one go and then get up at 5:00 am to watch the two-part finale. I didn’t predict it would make me feel things (gross) or how attached I would get to Monkey and his ghost pal. Gordon and Speck said they have detailed plans for two more seasons, however unlikely Hit-Monkey’s chances at renewal. My guess is Disney won’t want to leave money in Hulu’s hands and will pull the plug. I really, really hope there’s enough buzz about this murderous little monkey to give them pause because the story deserves a second chapter. If you enjoy Deadpool, Invincible, The Boys, etc., you will like Hit-Monkey. Hell, any Jason Sudekis fan should give it a try. You’ll be surprised by Hit-Monkey. I sure was.