In His Directorial Debut ‘Monkey Man,’ Dev Patel Is an Indian Action Hero Ready To Set the World on Fire 

Dev Patel’s “Monkey Man” has the feverish energy of a first-time director who wonders if he will get to make another movie. It is not flawless and some of its story could use a little polishing. Yet, it is carried along by a manic drive. Patel has worked for years as an actor cast in films by highly original directors. His debut feels like a rush to cram in everything he has learned along the way, smashing genres, social commentary and blood-soaked popcorn action into a dizzying cocktail. It is no surprise Jordan Peele agreed to be a producer on this project, since it clearly has a kinship with his own brand of genre-bending surrealism. Like the best entertainments, beneath all the technical showmanship, Patel has genuine things to say.

Patel borrows a classic character device and simply deems his character the “Kid.” He spends his nights kickboxing in the seedy underground of the fictional Mumbai-esque city of Yatana, taking falls so others can collect big. His trademark is a monkey mask, inspired by hearing the tale of Hindu deity Lord Hanuman as a child from his mother. But wealth isn’t what drives Kid, who hustles his way into a kitchen job at a luxurious hotel now under the alias “Bobby.” He seeks to infiltrate the circles of the corrupt to get revenge for the loss of his mother and their home. They were pushed out of their land by a property developer, Baba Shakti (Makrand Deshpande), who has built a mass following as a guru aligned with right-wing politicians. The Kid will have to form allies because getting to Shakti also means facing the villainous police chief, Rana (Sikandar Kher). 

“Monkey Man” never stops to take a breath. The screenplay, written by Paul Angunawela and John Collee from a story developed by Patel, wants to hit every theme possible as it rushes through scorching action sequences. Like “Slumdog Millionaire,” the movie that made Patel a global star, this is an underdog exploration of poverty and inequality in India. The guru villain is no doubt a commentary on the ongoing rise of Hindu nationalism since the election of Narendra Modi. Kid finds shelter at a temple dedicated to Ardhanarishvara, the Hindu deity who is half male and half female, overseen by Alpha (Vipin Sharma). But that is also in the nature of good comic books and hero’s journeys. They have always included observations on the world in their quests. By including hijras, a traditional transgender community in South Asia, Patel keeps alive that necessary tradition of pop art keeping representation vibrant. Patel just tries to juggle it all with a revenge story that wants to show off his skills at working with choreographers for dynamic moments. 

Before its politics and sociology, “Monkey Man” grabs as an adrenaline ride. Cinematographer Sharone Meir is shadowing the style of movies like “John Wick,” “The Raid” and “Kill Bill,” framing brutal violence in colorful, neon textures. Covid lockdowns and other issues reportedly caused a lot of on-set headaches, with Meir resorting to using cell phones and GoPros. Crew members were even recruited as extras and filming had to switch from India to an Indonesian island. The result is visually kinetic. Kid does not have superpowers. His only skills are what he has acquired in the ring and this gives the fight scenes bone-crunching grit. He can run a knife through someone’s face while also breaking a few bones and facing disaster. Patel turns the streets of Yatana into a battleground of steaming slums and polluted rivers, while the elite snort drugs in glossy high rises. The casting is great in how it turns Bollywood faces upside down by casting Indian film veterans like Sikandar Kher and Ashwini Kalsekar as truly unsavory villains involved in human trafficking and land grabs. Pitobash is a riot as Alphonso, a total street operator who reluctantly becomes part of Kid’s battle against the underworld. 

In the style of classics like “The Crow,” the sheer effort and visual creativity of Patel’s approach makes “Monkey Man” effective. We get the cliché training sequence where somehow Kid spends quite a lot of time pounding a rice sack and is suddenly ready to take on the world. The point is it’s done with style and rarely do we ever get an Indian hero as the centerpiece. There are no white saviors in this movie. Sharlto Copley is the only visible Caucasian as the master of ceremonies during the underground boxing matches. We can also see here a continuing evolution in action movie gender roles. Sobhita Dhulipala plays Sita, a woman rescued from the hotel where Kid’s targets gather. She doesn’t become another go-to love interest but a genuine part of his growing circle of allies. Patel would rather focus on how his hero represents a violent outburst against gentrification, which is a universal theme viewers from any background will be able to relate to in an age of crushing housing crises.

Patel credits Jordan Peele with having saved “Monkey Man” after all of its production challenges. Thankfully, there are still directors around willing to support something that goes against the norm of diluted content, franchise overload and safe choices. Patel could have easily opted to make something deemed more familiar for American audiences. How easily we forget that audiences in this country are increasingly diverse and so entertainment tastes are hard to box in. It leaves us wanting to see what he does next. The energy of “Monkey Man” is infectious while having the merit of being a wholly Indian hero taking names and setting the world on fire. This also makes him an ideal universal fantasy, because whether you are in India or America, we all wish someone would come along to give the higher ups and their corrupt cops their just desserts.

Monkey Man” releases April 5 in theaters nationwide.