'Monkey Man' review: Dev Patel's directorial debut is both exhilarating and raw

At the London premiere of Monkey Man, star, co-writer, and first-time director Dev Patel described the film as his “best friend, worst enemy, and the little gremlin” on his shoulders, for years.

It’s easy to see why: Monkey Man will likely consume viewers as it did its creator. Patel’s directorial debut is a gory, exhilarating, non-stop revenge plot, punctured by sprawling action scenes and set against a politically-fraught, contradictory India.

The two-hour-long film, produced by Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions, found its inspiration in a plethora of cultural sources. It has drawn parallels to Keanu Reeve’s John Wick; Patel himself has named Bollywood’s Shah Rukh Khan, action icon Bruce Lee, and everything Korean cinema has to offer, as influences. But it is Hindu mythology — more specifically the vast Sanskrit epic Ramayana — that acts as a tapestry behind Monkey Man, where the deity Hanuman underscores the decisions and decisiveness of the film’s hero.

Monkey Man takes aim at opulence and inequality

In Monkey Man, Patel plays Kid, a lonesome man who spends his days donning a monkey mask and getting beaten to a pulp in an underground fighting ring run by the apathetic Tiger (Sharlto Copley). Set in the fictional city of Yatana, resembling Mumbai in its opulence and disparity, the film begins with Kid’s pursuit of a job at a lavish hotel, working for Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar), the unforgiving manager who heads a secret brothel within the hotel’s impenetrable walls. Kid works his way up the ranks, befriended by one of his fellow workers, Alphonso (Pitobash) and encountering various players in the ecosystem: Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala), a full service sex worker who is underutilized by the film, and Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher), an amoral police officer who is the nucleus of Kid’s ploy for revenge.

Dev Patel in a still from 'Monkey Man'.

Dev Patel turns first-time director for the film.
Credit: Universal Pictures

Kid’s quest for vengeance is relentless, but the audience is left in the dark about what quite drives it, and what this character’s past holds. Nonetheless, Patel is utterly convincing in his angst and determination, as Kid’s disdain for corruption in the country becomes apparent, slowly spelled out through hazy flashbacks of his seemingly late mother and snippets of gloomy news segments between events.

Inequality is rife in Yatana, with the flamboyance of the rich consistently contrasted with those who live underneath the city’s skyscrapers. In one instance, Alphonso tells him that they are both “rolling with the kings now” – referring to their unlikely infiltration of the elite – and Kid retorts: “They don’t even see us.”

The film is highly stylised in its approach, with the camera seemingly flying between spaces and scenes, each brimming with color and object, executed by cinematographer Sharone Meir and editors Dávid Jancsó and Tim Murrell. So much of the film is simply entertaining. Amongst these moments: a self-aware wink towards John Wick, in a scene where an underground arms dealer hands Patel a Glock. Interspersed with the present day are whisper-laden, hand-drawn retellings of Hindu fables, and, later, insight into the neon-lit, provocative parties at Queenie’s hotel, the site which occupies much of the movie and Kid’s anxieties.

A weave of action and political commentary

Monkey Man is a real treat when it comes to Patel’s handling of the action genre, with both his performance and direction elevating the ultra-violent fight scenes that are far from methodical. The first chaotic fight scene between Rana and Kid will keep audiences transfixed, also offering a rare bout of humor. Hindi insults are hurled, blood is strewn, and punches are thrown, all at the same time. The energy invoked in such scenes, again replicated in the nail-biting climax, is palpable and frenetic.

Sharlto Copley in a still from 'Monkey Man'.

Sharlto Copley in ‘Monkey Man’.
Credit: Universal Pictures

The film, which shines brightest when the spotlight is on the action and aesthetics, loses some light with its political messaging. The country’s reigning political party in real life, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is never taken by name but its presence looms: the divisive politics of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party lie at the movie’s roots, causing the same devastating ripples in Patel’s fictional city as they do in modern India today. A viral post on X delineated how the flags of the political party in Monkey Man were shown in the original trailer to be orange, the color code of the BJP, but later changed to red. This change, presumably from Patel and Universal, may be an effort to save the movie’s fate in India, where its release is currently delayed. And, if a recent Washington Post report is to be taken into consideration, this isn’t surprising: entertainment criticizing the Indian government is being censored, leading to streaming giants like Netflix and Prime Video casting a cautious eye on its works in the country.

Notably, Netflix was the original distributor of the film, having bought the worldwide rights in 2021 for $30 million. This was later dropped, and it was then that Peele stepped in and Universal acquired the rights instead. Whether this has to do with Patel’s complicated depiction of right-wing Indian politicians is not known.

The film, which shines brightest when the spotlight is on the action and aesthetics, loses some light with its political messaging.

Patel’s intent to discern parts of India’s political climate — namely, its treatment of marginalized people – is clear, but oftentimes comes across half-baked. Perhaps this is intentionally opaque, a way to conceal the overt condemnation of current government. There are references to farmers and laborers, to those who have lost land, to police corruption, and to the way faith has been weaponized for political prowess. But the references will arguably only be known to those familiar with the headlines occupying the Indian subcontinent.

Dev Patel delivers ambitious storytelling with an emotionally-punctured climax

More than the political, the personal is what elevates Monkey Man. Patel’s performance, and moments of reflection, feel deeply personal, as the project certainly was to the actor himself.

Towards the second half of Monkey Man, Kid seeks refuge at a temple helmed by hijras, known as India’s third gender and a historically marginalized group. Here, he is supported by the temple’s inhabitants, who are also known to be shunned by society, living on the outskirts of India’s urban metropolis. The leader, Alpha (Vipin Sharma), urges Kid to shed his past: “Destroy in order to grow and create space for new life,” he says.

These words not only motivate Kid for his hunt to defeat his enemies, but also ring true for his own sense of identity and the power of rebuilding. His defeats at Tiger’s underground ring no longer define his story. Instead, he draws parallels with the tale of Hanuman, which, at its core, is about overcoming evil. This is the fuel behind the film, which takes genre-centric themes of destruction, evolution, and redemption and applies them in ways that feel fresh. Mythology and morals underscore the plot in such ways, and for the most part, allow the story to be pierced with emotional weight. Patel’s debut is an exhilarating, ambitious adventure, one that is sure to lay the groundwork for further directorial ventures.

Monkey Man is out in cinemas.


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