Dev Patel in 'Monkey Man,' directed by Dev Patel.

Dev Patel in 'Monkey Man,' directed by Dev Patel. Copyright: © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Opening in theaters Friday (April 5) is ‘Monkey Man,’ starring Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley, Pitobash, Vipin Sharma, Sikandar Kher, Sobhita Dhulipala, Ashwini Kalsekar, Makarand Deshpande, and Adithi Kalkunte.

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Initial Thoughts

While we may know Dev Patel best from his 2008 film debut in ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’ he has quietly compiled a collection of performances since then that have incorporated literary classics (‘The Personal History of David Copperfield’), surreal fantasies (‘The Green Knight’), and tense true-life stories (‘Hotel Mumbai’). But now Patel has stepped it up several notches with ‘Monkey Man,’ a relentless and brutal action thriller that finds the young actor behind the camera for the first time as director.

While it may be derivative stylistically and overburdened a bit narratively, ‘Monkey Man’ finds Patel flexing his own action hero muscles more than ever before. But it also shows him to be an assured presence behind the camera, fearlessly taking on not just complicated and often tremendously violent fight sequences, but a personal story steeped in Indian culture and some of the turbulent political forces in the nation.

Story and Direction

Director Dev Patel (center left) on the set of his film 'Monkey Man'.

Director Dev Patel (center left) on the set of his film 'Monkey Man'. Copyright: © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

In an opening sequence, a young boy only known in the film as Kid (Jatin Malik) listens to his mother (Adithi Kalkunte) tell him the story of Hanuman, a Hindu monkey god who serves his people through his strength and courage. Years later, a now-grown Kid (Patel), wearing a monkey mask, works as a fall guy in an underground fight club run by Tiger (Sharlto Copley), getting paid to take a beating from more popular fighters.

But Kid has a plan: he works his way into the service of Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar), who runs a restaurant and social club frequented by the political, law enforcement, and criminal elite of the (fictional) city of Yatana. Once embedded there, Kid climbs the ladder to find himself working in the club’s most exclusive VIP area – the Kings Club -- where he sets eyes on the person who has been his target all along: Rana (Sikandar Kher), a sadistic police chief who has a direct connection to Kid’s tragic past and the painful scars on his hands.

'Monkey Man,' directed by Dev Patel.

'Monkey Man,' directed by Dev Patel. Copyright: © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Along the way – and after taking a beating that leaves him nearly dead – Kid finds himself in the care of the hijras, a mystical, gender-fluid tribe led by Alpha (Vipin Sharma). The hijras not only join Kid’s cause – having suffered persecution themselves – but set him on a course of healing that allows the self-styled warrior to find new reservoirs of strength, courage, and power that turn him into his own version of Hanuman, ready to take on not just Rana but the sociopolitical forces amassed behind him.

Kid’s tale of grief, redemption, and revenge is, in many ways, a familiar one: the legend of Hanuman itself and other Eastern myths have had a longstanding influence on archetypal tales of heroes and their journeys. And it’s told through a directorial and esthetic style that boldly borrows – in terms of its sheer physicality and violence – from modern action classics like the ‘John Wick’ movies and Gareth Evans’ now-legendary ‘The Raid’ and its sequel. To be sure, there’s an air of predictability and a sense of numbness that both set in toward the end of ‘Monkey Man,’ but they’re mostly overcome by Patel’s poignant portrayal of Kid – which never loses its emotional grounding – and the sheer energy that Patel brings to the material as a director.

Culturally Immersive

Dev Patel is Kid in 'Monkey Man' directed by Dev Patel.

Dev Patel is Kid in 'Monkey Man' directed by Dev Patel. Copyright: © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

One way in which ‘Monkey Man’ stands out from its action and crime brethren is through Patel’s fearless embrace of all things Indian and Hindu. This is a film released by a major Hollywood studio (Universal) and backed by a formidable producer (Jordan Peele) that is largely non-English and is fully immersed in the culture of India even though the setting itself, Yatana, is not real (the film was largely shot in Batam, Indonesia).

In addition to channeling the myths he learned from his own parents and grandparents, Patel shows us the underside of Indian urban life as well as the corruption that can run rampant through the corridors of power in any society. A subplot involving a spiritual demagogue and sociopath (Makarand Deshpande) who is manipulating the populace and the government has reverberations both for modern Indian political affairs and those right here in the U.S. The plight of poor people being abused and fighting back against society’s upper echelons is universal, but also intensely related to the culture here.

'Monkey Man,' directed by Dev Patel. Copyright: © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

'Monkey Man,' directed by Dev Patel. Copyright: © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

Perhaps most fascinating is the story of the hijras, the enigmatic tribe with a long history in Indian culture who essentially represent a third gender. With several members of the tribe played by real hijra actors, the film focuses on a little-known and often ostracized segment of the Indian community with stark connections to the challenges faced by transgender people everywhere.

All this makes ‘Monkey Man’ one of the most ethnically immersive and complex films to get a major release in a long time, and Patel doesn’t spend much time explaining its many facets. While that may run the risk of alienating some viewers who are not familiar with the culture – it’s a lot to take on in one sitting – it’s still a bracing experience.

Final Thoughts

Dev Patel in 'Monkey Man,' directed by Dev Patel.

(Left) Dev Patel in 'Monkey Man,' directed by Dev Patel. Copyright: © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

‘Monkey Man’ is a flawed film in several ways – its plot is familiar, and as noted earlier, Patel borrows from the action playbook of several recent hits. He also tends to fall into the first-time director trap of wanting to throw everything he can into the mix. The movie’s stew of violent vengeance, sociopolitical intrigue, and poignant, grief-stricken character study feels sometimes like it’s about to topple over from its own pile of thematic and narrative threads.

But Dev Patel manages to pull it all together, thanks to his own committed and complete performance, the colorful supporting cast behind him, the atmospheric portrayal of several different sides of Indian culture, and the muscular pacing and energy of much of the movie. ‘Monkey Man’ may not quite reinvent the action thriller as its director and star aspires to, but it certainly reinvents Dev Patel as a filmmaker to keep watching.

‘Monkey Man’ receives 7 out of 10 stars.

Monkey Man

"One small ember can burn down everything."
72
R2 hr 1 minMar 11th, 2024
Showtimes & Tickets

What is the plot of ‘Monkey Man’?

A seemingly unobtrusive young man from the street named Kid (Dev Patel), who earns a living getting beaten up in an underground fight club, manages to work his way into the private clubs of the city’s criminals, elites, and power brokers. Once there, haunted by memories of his mother and the stories she told him of a Hindu deity, Kid begins a relentless course of revenge that has been years in the making.

Who is in the cast of ‘Monkey Man’?

  • Dev Patel as Kid
  • Sharlto Copley as Tiger
  • Pitobash as Alphonso
  • Vipin Sharma as Alpha
  • Sikandar Kher as Rana
  • Sobhita Dhulipala as Sita
  • Ashwini Kalsekar as Queenie
  • Adithi Kalkunte as Neela
  • Makarand Deshpande as Baba Shakti

Dev Patel in 'Monkey Man,' directed by Dev Patel.

Dev Patel in 'Monkey Man,' directed by Dev Patel. Copyright: © Universal Studios. All Rights Reserved.

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