HomeAAPI ActorsReview: Dev Patel makes directorial debut in Monkey Man

Review: Dev Patel makes directorial debut in Monkey Man

By Jana Monji

Monkey Man is the moniker for an unpopular competitor in an underground fight club, so named because he wears a gorilla mask. In Dev Patel’s directorial feature film debut, Monkey Man, Patel stars as a man who punishes himself as part of his survivor’s guilt, but inside rages for revenge. His journey toward justice is bloody, but heroic.

“One small ember can burn down everything” is the film’s tagline, and there will be fire, blood and gore, enough that you won’t be surprised at its R-rating. There are also depictions of drug use, sexual content and brief nudity. Patel and his cinematographer Sharone Meir focus on the choreography and shock appeal of violence. This isn’t the glorification of gore, but the explosion of a simmering anger contrasted by a child’s innocence shown in flashbacks.

As child, the Kid (Jatin Malik as the young Kid) learned about Hanuman, a mythical monkey warrior god, from his mother Neela (Adithi Kalkunte). Slowly we learn how the Kid lost his mother and permanently scarred his hands. Now as a long lean adult, he earns a meager wage by losing fighting matches at a sleazy, underground fight club, as The Beast, a man wearing a gorilla mask.

Monkey Man still. Man in monkey mask.
Universal Pictures

The Kid arranges to meet Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar), the manager of the elite Kings Club, where members can buy drugs and women. Offering to take any job, he tells her, “Give me the job that no one wants to do.”

Yet Queenie warns, “Anyone who talks outside these walls, anyone who forgets their place, it doesn’t go well for them.” There, the Kid is befriended by the glorified gofer Alphonso (Pitobash) and is attracted to one of the escorts Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala).

While he circles around his target, the corrupt police officer Rana (Sikandar Kher), he’s also drawn into the social circle where the popular guru Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande) circulates. To complete his mission of revenge, the Kid will need some spiritual guidance from Alpha (Vipin Sharma), the mother of the third-gender tribe, hijra. While Alpha and his tribe heal and guide the Kid, advising him, “I learned you need to destroy in order to grow,” so expect destruction. The Kid will also inspire the hijra to join him in battling the system that oppresses them both.

The infusion of Asian Indian culture makes this predictable action thriller more engrossing than most and I won’t pretend to understand all of the socio-political implications. The actions scenes are handled well, but instead of the emotional pull of dogs or the treacherous journey up-and-down 222 steps as in John Wick (who is mentioned), the writers Patel (who’s credited with the story), Paul Angunawela and John Collee go for unrelenting grimness and grime. There is a dog who plays a crucial role, and it doesn’t die, but the animal isn’t used to elicit empathy from the audience.

Monkey Man is a solid feature film directorial debut and serves as what could be the debut of an Asian Indian hero, one that could pass as a native in India or surrounding areas and makes more sense than a White person racing around to save the son of an Indian drug lord (e.g. 2020 action thriller Extraction). Monkey Man may be the start of a new franchise as an anti-hero origin story, but it is certainly a promising start for Patel as director.

Monkey Man premiered at South by Southwest on 11 March 2024 and was released by Universal Pictures on 5 April 2024.

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