Dev Patel’s Monkey Man launches him as a legitimate action star in his electrifying directorial debut

Dev Patel’s Monkey Man launches him as a legitimate action star in his electrifying directorial debut
  • PublishedApril 7, 2024

Dev Patel is an actor so outrageously charming, his movie stardom so clearly pre-ordained, it’s surprising to note how few of his films are particularly memorable.

Largely defined by Oscar-calibrated biopics and twee British pabulum, Patel’s career reflects the paucity of roles for South Asian actors in Hollywood, as well as the gutting of compelling mid-budget fare that once forged A-List names.

Recent collaborations with David Lowery (The Green Knight) and Wes Anderson (The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar) have given the actor the chance to stretch beyond the bright-eyed earnestness and sexless innocence he’d been typecast as — but it’s Patel’s directorial debut, Monkey Man, that unleashes him onto a full-throated star vehicle.

Splitting the difference between revenge saga and angsty origin story, the film centres on a taciturn vigilante named “Kid” as he seeks justice for his mother’s death.

A film still of Dev Patel and Pitobash, standing together in an old-fashioned lift. Patel has a tray of drinks in one hand.
At SXSW, Patel said he wanted to give the action genre “real soul, real trauma, real pain … And I wanted to infuse it with a little bit of culture”.(Supplied: Universal)

Like Batman, Wolverine and countless other animal-themed heroes, Kid is a bruised loner consumed by righteous fury. His primate persona (in character, rather than literal form) hails from the Hindu deity Hanuman, whose legend is narrated to Kid by his mother in the film’s prologue.

Evoking both Icarus and Prometheus, Hanuman’s story begins with the young demigod attempting to seize the sun, mistaking it for a ripe mango, and facing immediate punishment from the Gods.

A film still of Dev Patel, wearing a gorilla mask. He is crouched in the corner of a wrestling ring, one arm on the ropes.
Patel broke his hand while filming the movie’s first action sequence.(Supplied: Universal)

It’s a fable that adds mythic weight to Kid’s own blood-soaked tale. While moonlighting as the heel of an underground fighting tournament in a fictional Indian city, he insinuates his way into the bottom rung of a high-end brothel ruthlessly managed by Queenie Kapoor (Ashwini Kalsekar). 

His rise through the ranks — with the assistance of comedy-relief gangster Alphonso (Pitobash) — inches him closer to his primary target of vengeance, Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande): a corrupt spiritual leader with deep pockets and vast political influence.

The ensuing carnage exhibits an electrifying, go-for-broke attitude from Patel as action star and first-time director, even if he never quite exceeds his influences.

While Kid is far too Hollywood-handsome and well-groomed to physically resemble a scrappy street rat, each messy brawl sees Patel mutate into another creature entirely. Neither an unstoppable machine nor a sophisticated martial-arts master, Kid is a vicious underdog who’s unafraid to rip into flesh with his bare teeth.

The action is often captured in longer handheld shots with little space to hide, letting Patel flex his fighting prowess. Even without an awareness of the film’s gruelling shoot (which saw the actor-director sustain numerous injuries), it’s one of the more committed action movie turns you’ll see this year.

A film still of Dev Patel. He is lit by red light behind him, and is wearing a suit and a determined expression.
An industry insider described the movie in 2021 as “John Wick in Mumbai”.(Supplied: Universal)

John Wick is playfully name-dropped early on, an acknowledgement of their broad similarities: an unlikely hero out for revenge in a tailored suit; a fondness for neon-drenched clubs; roots in Asian action cinema.

But there’s a scruffiness to Monkey Man that feels just as inspired by the hyper-modern work of Korean director Jung Byung-gil (The Villainess) — particularly in a chaotic midpoint set piece that dazzlingly slips in and out of Kid’s POV and splices in noisy phone footage.

Occasionally, the loving homages miss the point. Key ideas and visual motifs are lifted from Park Chan-wook’s twisty 2003 thriller Oldboy, which imbued ultraviolence with gnawing dread as its hero’s revenge capitulated to self-annihilation.

Monkey Man is comparatively disinterested in dipping its toes into the murkiness of vigilante justice.

A film still of Sharlto Copley. He is holding a microphone to his mouth, the other arm outstretched to his left.
“I’ve never seen someone pour his heart, soul, body, mind and energy into a film, into a story more than this man,” Peele said at Monkey Man’s SXSW premiere.(Supplied: Universal)

The film is also marred by increasingly obtrusive flashbacks that sketch out Kid’s generic tragic backstory. His motivating trauma is laboured to an almost dulled effect, though it also manifests in Kid’s Oedipal obsession with protecting Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala), one of the escorts he works alongside.

A slowed-down remix of The Police’s Roxanne all but spells out Kid’s gendered saviour complex in one woozy nightclub scene – only for Patel to quickly abandon this idea.

This blunt force approach functions better in Monkey Man’s rebuke of Hindu nationalism. Its villains extend to religious supremacists, dirty politicians and crooked cops, all implicated in the film’s depiction of sectarian violence (which incorporates real-world footage).

A film still of Dev Patel, smiling up at a woman. He is lying in her lap, with other people seated around them.
Netflix first bought the rights to Monkey Man for about $US30 million, before Jordan Peele and his production company acquired the flick so it could be released in cinemas.(Supplied: Universal)

It all reflects a palpable, searing fury against the religion’s modern-day weaponisation under India’s major political parties; just as American action films tore down Trump-coded villains from 2016 onwards, Patel aims his sights on India’s current Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.

Noticeably absent from the film are any explicit mentions of India’s Muslim population, who are most at risk from the ongoing expansion of Hindu nationalism. As much as Patel and Kid embrace Hindu mythology in a stirring act of reclamation, there’s a hollowness in how the film ultimately omits the real-life victims.

Nevertheless, there’s no denying the sheer spectacle of Patel promoting himself to action movie stardom – even if some punches are pulled.


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