MONKEY MAN Is a Riveting and Spiritually Resonant Directorial Debut from Dev Patel

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In his solo directorial debut, Dev Patel invites audiences to the underground world of Monkey Man, a thrilling and spiritually resonant action film that offers more than its surface promise of an exciting action romp. In the movie, we see the writer-director starring as “Kid,” a.k.a. the titular “Monkey Man.” And we join Kid as he undergoes a journey of vengeance for his mother Neela (Adithi Kalkunte). Co-written with Paul Angunawela and John Collee, Monkey Man is a uniquely riveting film whose artistry will leave you stunned.

Monkey Man Dev Patel
Universal Pictures

In a Western media landscape abundant with films full of exaggerated exposition upon exposition, which don’t allow audiences to genuinely feel along with their characters, Monkey Man is a deeply refreshing display of “show, not tell.” Indeed, the lack of elaboration on plot details is so bold throughout the first half of the film that some may feel frustrated that the story takes so long to reveal the exact reasons why Kid is seeking revenge. But Patel trusts you as an audience member to piece it together from the jump. Not to be pedantic, but if you don’t overthink the visual experience as you move along with Kid from the boxing ring to the restaurant to his first battle and beyond, you’ll find awe in the world and journey that Patel presents.

Monkey Man Mask
Universal Pictures

Patel pays abundant attention to detail as a director. His and cinematographer Sharone Meir’s cinematography is electric as we follow Kid through the streets of Mumbai. The city is alive with so many shots of the impoverished yet lively people of a lower caste set below the rich and corrupt elite. Caste discrimination remains strong in India, and Monkey Man doesn’t let you forget it. But the joys of the impoverished are abundant as well. The closeups of food in the film linger, making your mouth water. The dances and the rhythms are beautiful to watch and listen to. While still very much an action film, Monkey Man is a lovingly crafted visual story. And it again shows you what Kid ultimately battles for beyond his own need for vengeance.

At the heart of Kid’s fight are simply the people who have faced similar oppression to that of his family. Alongside the movie’s incredible visuals, Patel’s typically brilliant acting showcases his range, and the talents of his cast shine as well. All of these aspects combine to make Monkey Man an enthralling watch and reveal its heart. Like the Lord Hanuman, the “Monkey Man” of Hindu legend whom Kid emulates in certain scenes, Kid learns to ascribe by acts of service and devotion to his community. Through that understanding he finds his true power, adding spiritual resonance that propels this action flick.

Monkey Man family shot
Universal Pictures

Kid’s fight is ultimately not just for himself but for his society, which is similarly abused by the political elite. If you’ve been following the news in India, this has been an issue for a while, especially for Indian Muslims who continuously face bigoted attacks and discrimination from Hindutva supporters. While Monkey Man doesn’t reference the current Islamophobia of Narendra Modi’s BJP (barring one quick image of a sign saying “Indian Muslims” in a montage), the stand-in of the “Sovereign Party,” a cultish ruling group led by Baba Shakti (Makrand Deshpande), which similarly supports violent attacks on minority and underserved Indian communities, echoes the political violence of India’s current ruling party.

While I may have preferred a more explicit acknowledgment of the unique threat that Muslim Indians face, the more nebulous allegory of this one Hindu group conducting attacks and stealing the land of other Hindu sects and caste they ostracized still resonated as echoing the sociopolitical strife. I would imagine Dev Patel is certainly aware enough, and intended that contemporary allusion to the real-life strife.

Monkey Man fight scene
Universal Pictures

The fight scenes in Monkey Man are also brutally artistic. Again, Patel pays close attention to the details of the fights. Every drop of blood, either from Kid or his enemies, is intentional. The rawness of Kid’s fights shows the depth of his grief, particularly in the beginning. As the film goes on and he increasingly understands how to harness his power, Kid’s fighting style becomes more refined and precise, whereas at the start it was only the brutality. The fights, with their fluid and precise camerawork, are beautifully violent without going over the top. There is a refreshing intention to everything Patel and his team do in their choices. And this intentionally makes Monkey Man a standout in modern martial arts films.

Monkey Man Fight Scene 2
Universal Pictures

In all, Monkey Man is a triumph for Dev Patel as a director, actor, and co-writer. Patel brings together a tremendous cast and team and offers a unique spin on a revenge action movie. While the plot may be simple on its face, Patel showcases depth in the visual storytelling. And this depth provides a commentary on society, a spiritual depth, and a set of riveting characters. All this together makes Monkey Man anything but simple. I can’t wait to see more of his directorial flair.

⭐ (4.5 of 5)