‘Monkey Man’ Movie Review: The Aggressive Stunt Thriller Lands All Its Punches

Dev Patel exploded into global consciousness in Slumdog Millionaire, the 2008 British smash hit that opened the Western world’s eyes to the cinematic possibilities within India. Since then, Mr. Patel’s roles have largely been in Western films with an Indian setting – the two Marigold Hotel movies, the biopic Lion, and a few thrillers. But even in leading roles, he feels underused, and most recently, the exceptional The Green Knight, in which he’s also exceptional, was sunk by a combination of its strange mood and the bad timing of a 2021 release. But it’s clear that Mr. Patel decided to take his career into his own hands around then. The result is Monkey Man, a gory and violent fight movie which Mr. Patel directed, wrote the story for, co-produced, and starred in – and FINALLY. 

Finally, Mr. Patel makes it crystal clear everything he can do and how very good he is at doing it. Monkey Man is one of the aggressive stunt thrillers that have become commonplace since the John Wick franchise became the new James Bond, but this is not about secret organizations or fading empire. And nor is it simply about kicking ass in an Indian setting. Instead, it’s about one young man’s desperate attempts to assert his love in a cruel and loveless world where unremitting violence is the only choice. And it absolutely lands all its punches.

Dev Patel in Monkey Man
Dev Patel in Monkey Man. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Dev Patel’s Action-Packed Feature Directorial Debut

Make no mistake, it is violent – noses bitten off, accidental decapitation, stabbing somebody while holding the knife with your teeth – but the absolutely frenetic action sequences and Sharone Meir’s circling cinematography means the fights move so fast they aren’t tough to watch. And it’s clear to begin with that Mr. Patel’s character – referred to in the credits as Kid, though he tells his mate Alphonso (Pitobash) that his name is Bobby, an obvious lie – isn’t that great a fighter. 

He’s introduced getting absolutely worked over in an anything-goes fighting pit run by a disgusting white man (a perfect and perfectly used Sharlto Copley). Kid fights wearing a monkey mask in tribute to the god Hanuman (also the inspiration for a Telugu superhero film that came out earlier this year). But the fights are not wholly masochism, as they’re the means to Kid’s goal of killing the evil police chief Rana (Sikandar Kher), who did despicable things in not-to-be-spoiled flashback. 

Once he thinks he’s ready, he gets himself a job in the kitchens of a club Rana frequents, though it takes some sly work involving the owner Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar, an expert villain) for Kid to be promoted to being a waiter in the VIP suite. There, he hands out vials of cocaine and makes eyes at one of the girls, Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala). Jed Kurzel’s music here makes an embarrassing choice – a young man falling in love with a sex worker to “Roxanne” has been a cliché since Moulin Rouge! if not before – but otherwise, the music is largely pulsing beats to maintain the momentum of the fights. There’s even some Jefferson Airplane in the mix, which is a surprise. 

Sharlto Copley in Monkey Man
Sharlto Copley in Monkey Man. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Monkey Man is not your typical action movie

But nearly everything about Monkey Man is a surprise. There’s an extended sequence where Kid finds himself under the protection of a community of hijras led by Alpha (Vipin Sharma), meaning the usual training montage has the unusual spin of being done under the tutelage of transgender sex workers also out for revenge. (They all react appropriately when Mr. Patel takes his shirt off, too.) 

Kid befriends a stray dog outside the restaurant kitchen, but once it helps him smuggle a gun past some metal detectors it’s never thought of again. And Kid is capable of extreme violence in close quarters in a way that’s at odds with both his personality and Mr. Patel’s generally amiable screen persona. The motivations of the flashbacks make it very clear what’s going on with the Kid, and as for Mr. Patel – there’s a sense of water finally finding its level.

The direction is calm and capable, without the pornographic relish for gore that can make revenge movies like this barely watchable. The fights have a propulsive kinetic energy and the action is easy to follow even when staged in dark rooms or confined spaces, and there’s even space for a little humour to leaven all the sadness. And all the times Mr. Patel feels like an animal escaped from the zoo, finally able to display the unexpected and dangerous depths that are his true self. 

Monkey Man: Violent, Cathartic, & Dev Patel’s Brilliant Work

Is it clear how awesome this is? Both as a directorial achievement and an acting one? Because most action directors have to earn their stripes as crew on other productions before leveling up, and most action stars have a background in what Harrison Ford once referred to as the ‘running, jumping and falling down branch’ of movies. Nothing in Mr. Patel’s CV indicated he was capable of this, either as an actor or a director, so to see him doing so brilliantly at both is absolutely spectacular. 

Netflix didn’t plan a cinematic release of it – and what is up with that? Between this and Hit Man, they don’t know what crowd-pleasing smashes look like while they’re being hit over the head with them – but fortunately, Jordan Peele stepped in with his production company to enable the world to see this on the big screen. We’ll never underestimate Mr. Patel again, and the catharsis Monkey Man provides both us and him means it should open many, many doors. 

Dev Patel in Monkey Man - 2
Dev Patel in Monkey Man. Image courtesy of Universal Pictures.

Monkey Man’s Potential to Bridge Indian and Western Cinema

Here in the UK, several mainstream cinema chains show the major Indian films alongside Hollywood ones, and since RRR won the Oscar for Best Song, the Western world has been looking at Indian cinema with fresh eyes. Mr. Patel has been poised his whole life between these two cultures, and Monkey Man is in the perfect position to take full advantage of this zeitgeist. It is wholly Western in tone and style and almost entirely spoken in English, but the cultural setting gives it a kick that’s entirely new in Hollywood. And hopefully now Mr. Patel will be able to find other parts which equally appreciate everything he has to offer no matter where in the world they’re set. 

Monkey Man will be in theaters on April 5, 2024.

Learn more about the film, including how to buy tickets, at the film’s official website.

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