Monkey Man

Both in front of the camera and behind it, Dev Patel is a force to be reckoned with in his frenetic and thrilling feature filmmaking debut.
Sarah Ward
Published on April 03, 2024


Dev Patel means business in Monkey Man, both on- and off-screen. Starring in the ferocious vengeance-dripping action-thriller, he plays Kid, a man on a mission to punish the powers that be in Yatana (a fictional Indian city inspired by Mumbai) for their injustices, and specifically for the death of his mother Neela (Adithi Kalkunte, who Patel worked with on Hotel Mumbai) when he was a boy. As the film's director, producer and co-writer, he isn't holding back either, especially in adding something to his resume that no other project has offered in his almost two decades as an actor since Skins marked his on-camera debut. Dev Patel: action star has an excellent ring to it. So does Dev Patel: action filmmaker. Both labels don't merely sound great with Monkey Man; this is a frenetic and thrilling flick, and also a layered one that marries its expertly choreographed carnage with a statement.

In the post-John Wick action-movie realm, it might seem as if every actor is doing features about formidable lone forces taking on their enemies. Patel initially began working on Monkey Man over ten years ago, which is when Keanu Reeves (The Matrix Resurrections) first went avenging, but his film still acknowledges what its viewers will almost-inevitably ponder by giving John Wick a shoutout. Thinking about the Charlize Theron (Fast X)-led Atomic Blonde and Bob Odenkirk (The Bear)-starring Nobody is understandable while watching, too — but it's The Raid and Oldboy, plus the decades of Asian action onslaughts and revenge-filled Korean efforts around them, that should stick firmest in everyone's mind. All directors are product of their influences; however, Patel achieves the rare feat of openly adoring his inspirations while filtering them through his exact vision to fashion a picture that's always 100-percent his own (and 100-percent excellent).

In a city that has a Gotham-New York relationship with its real-life counterpart, Kid isn't a feared assassin who other hitman consider the boogeyman. While Batman nods come through, too, he's definitely not a wealthy man about town with a secret alter ego as a saviour cleaning up the corruption that's darkening the streets. The second part is his aim, just without the cash to fund it — but before that fantasy can fall into place, he's donning a monkey mask and playing the pawn to brawnier wrestling opponents, as the sunglasses-wearing Tiger (Sharlto Copley, Patel's Chappie co-star) emcees. Losing earns him a living. It also lets him hone his fighting skills. And, it's a time-biding tactic, as Kid works his way closer to Yatana's most powerful, such as Chief of Police Rana (Sikandar Kher, Aarya), plus Sovereign Party leader and guru Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande, RRR). (Parallels with reality that punch through Kid's quest aren't by accident, with IRL news footage weaved in to stress the point).

His stepping stone to his targets: getting a job with Queenie Kapoor (Ashwini Kalsekar, Merry Christmas), who runs restaurant-slash-brothel King's Club, which services the well-to-do. In a gig that nabs him a friend in fellow employee Alphonso (Pitobash, Prachand), Kid says that he'll do anything. He isn't lying when it comes to using his position as a means to play out the vendetta against the man who made him an orphan, as well as the Hindu nationalist organisation leader that the latter is tied to. Patel and co-writers John Collee (Boy Swallows Universe, and another Hotel Mumbai alum) and Paul Angunawela (Keith Lemon: The Film) entwine flashbacks to Kid's childhood, heartbreak and getting comeuppance for it furnishing his backstory. They also knit in Hanuman, the Hindu deity that their protagonist was told stories about when he was young — as was Patel himself — and now draws upon, as assisted by India's third-gender hijras population, as if he's becoming the monkey god himself.

Originally, Monkey Man wasn't set to bounce its kinetic brutality through cinemas, nor Patel's gravitas-laced action-star performance or Sharone Meir's high-octane, often neon-lit cinematography (which follows his lensing of Silent Night, another flick about one man seeking retribution against the unscrupulous for a shattering loss). Netflix was due to be its home, then Jordan Peele's (Nope) Monkeypaw Productions stepped in to help lock in a big-screen date. (Peele, who made his own blistering filmmaking debut with Get Out, knows the route that Patel is walking intimately). The vision for Monkey Man was clearly bigger from the outset, though, and not just via frays that dance with raw energy and prove a dazzling spectacle worthy of a movie theatre's giant canvas. It's impossible not to notice that this, like much in film of late, is an origin story. Monkey Man is a calling card several times over, then: for Patel kicking ass and killing it, for the actor-turned-director behind the camera and for more to hopefully follow.

To describe the aesthetic Monkey Man experience, paraphrasing The Nanny's theme tune (as thoroughly unrelated as it is) works: this has style, it has flair, and Patel is well and truly there. It has an infectious immediacy and intensity as well, aided by dizzying fist-to-fist bash, crash and smash clashes — melees that injure eyes, heads, throats, limbs and testicles alike — plus propulsive editing (by Joe Galdo, an additional editor on Ferrari; The Crowded Room's Dávid Jancsó; and Black Mirror alum Tim Murrell) and a mood-setting urgency in its score (by Australian composer Jed Kurzel, who was responsible for the sounds of Snowtown, The Babadook and Nitram). There's also meaning in the franticness as blood and sweat fly feverishly, with each face-off increasing in polish. Again, Kid as an unstoppable force isn't a given going into his first bout out of the ring. Patel hasn't become a hulking figure to look at. His character grows into the physicality of his mission, on a journey that apes his coming-of-age path — because crunching bones and smartly telling this tale aren't mutually exclusive.

Paying tribute to genres and movies that Patel loves, including taking cues from the liveliness and enthusiasm of both Hong Kong actioners and Bollywood musicals, and even nodding to Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive and Only God Forgives; making a deep-feeling ode to Indian culture and myths; baking in a heated takedown of oppression, inequality and societal power used only for self-interest; exploring the impact faith has for better and for worse; honouring family: Monkey Man does it all. Patel also gives himself the kind of fierce showcase that's worlds away from the likes of Skins, Slumdog Millionaire, his Oscar-nominated Lion performance and The Personal History of David Copperfield. If his portrayal has predecessors on his filmography, it's via The Wedding Guest and The Green Knight, both vastly different flicks that delivered glimpses of where Monkey Man now takes him. That destination: a passion project that's an arrival several times over for a talent crafting his dream flick with confidence and commitment, matching mayhem with a message, and knocking it out of Monkey Man's underground fight clubs, elevators, bathrooms, hallways and everywhere else where Patel wreaks intoxicating havoc.



Tap and select Add to Home Screen to access Concrete Playground easily next time. x