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Monsters of Man (2020) Review

Military robots running amuck, a plot device that has powered films from Bruno Mattei’s delightfully insane Robowar to Kill Command and the more recent Battle Drone. Writer-director Mark Toia makes his debut with Monsters of Man, a 132-minute variation on that theme.

 It’s hard enough for a seasoned director to make a story stay interesting that long. Toia is a highly successful director of commercials in his native Australia but has never made even a short narrative film. Toia self-financed Monsters of Men, putting up 1.6 million dollars of his own money, obviously he thinks he can be the next Ridley Scott. Was his self-confidence justified?

A robotics company is out to score a big contract with the US military. Together with a rogue CIA official known only as Major (Neal McDonough, Project Blue Book, The 100), they perform a very illegal trial by combat. Four robots are dropped near the Vietnamese-Cambodian border to take out a triad drug operation.

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Unfortunately, things go wrong, and a nearby village becomes collateral damage. Realizing a group of doctors has witnessed this, the robots are ordered to eliminate them. What they don’t realize is that Mason (Brett Tutor), a former SEAL, was living in the village. And he’s still alive.

Monsters of Man takes the first half-hour or so to set up. And there’s a fairly large number of characters to introduce. Apart from the Major, there’s a team of four on-site led by Boller ( Jose Rosete, Bad President, Battlefield 2025). There are six doctors including Jordan (Paul Haapaniemi, Break Even) and Wendy (Tatjana Marjanovic, Great White, Shelter in Place).

Most of the locals apart from Keala (Ma Rynet) and her son Leap (Ly Ty) don’t last long enough to need an introduction. This was a missed opportunity. Monsters of Men was filmed in Cambodia, and as Jailbreak and The Prey have proven, there are plenty of talented martial artists and stunt people there.

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There’s also a secondary conflict, between Boller and the rest of the team, Kroger (David Haverty, The 27 Club), Jantz (Ryan Hough) and Fielding (Jessica Blackmore, Dam Sharks). It seems the techs weren’t told there would be any killing, which seems like a rather stupid move. And while they could get behind taking out triad members, massacring civilians is another matter. This is further complicated when one of the robots starts to become self-aware and actively resist their control. Not in a cute Chappie sort of way, either. At one point it dissects a villager to try to understand what humans are, and what it is.

That’s far from the only gore Monsters of Man dishes up. The robots are heavily armed, but they seem to be quite happy to crush skulls, stomp on people and generally get up close and personal with their victims. The effects are a mix of practical body parts and CGI blood spray. The CGI is better than usual but still obvious. The robots were mostly created using stuntmen and motion capture technology rather than pure animation. The results are convincing enough, I thought they were all actors in suits. As it turns out, only one was.

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On the downside, Monsters of Man is too long by about fifteen to twenty minutes. A lot of redundant dialogue and running through the jungle scenes should have been trimmed. It’s as though between inexperience and/or ego, Toia thought everything he shot should be used. And while the robots make good adversaries, their human masters are more laughable than threatening. Boller, Major and corporate CEO Foster (David Samartin) are cartoonishly evil to the point they should have had mustaches to twirl as they went about their business.

There’s a mid-credits scene that points at a sequel. Let’s hope Toia takes a course in editing before shooting it. Because that’s Monsters of Man’s real monster. I’m still recommending it, but I’m also recommending keeping the remote handy.

Monsters of Man is available to stream and on DVD from High Octane Films. You can check the film’s Facebook page and website for more information.

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