Monkey Man Review: Dev Patel Paints the Screen Red in Dazzling Actioner

It took Dev Patel years of false starts and delays to realize his absolutely rabid dream of action cinema glory. The wait was worth it.

Dev Patel in Monkey Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

There is a scene late in Dev Patel’s directorial debut, the ferocious and ferociously entertaining Monkey Man, where the filmmaker, star, and co-writer rips a guy’s throat out. In the realm of action cinema, that is of course nothing new. However, the way it occurs here is. When Patel’s Kid finds his hands otherwise occupied, the feral protagonist improvises by catching a switchblade between his teeth and slowly unfurling its knife. He then drags its nasty end from ear to ear across the neck of a man he is wrapped around. The moment is intimate, drawn out, and very, very red. For its mastermind, it also must play like vindication.

Monkey Man is a visceral, kinetic, and sweat-stained blast of adrenaline from an actor eager to reveal a brutality we may not have known existed. By which standards, the film is an unqualified success. Beyond revealing Patel’s full physicality, Monkey Man enjoys a dogged dynamism and desire to dwell on the seedier side of Indian life; it will likely go down as one of the best original action movies of this decade.

Monkey Man was originally pegged for a Netflix release before a litany of setbacks—including the pandemic, injuries, and a streaming service’s cold feet—nearly killed the picture three times over. On the other side of that journey, though, and after the raucous reception it received at the SXSW Film Festival, it might be safe to say that it was worth it, if only insofar that producer Jordan Peele has championed the movie to a theatrical release that is sure to prevent the film from vanishing into the algorithm ether. This is a nasty, passionate piece of work that needs to be seen with a large audience who can wince and scream together every time Patel’s Kid bears his teeth, figuratively and literally.

The narrative reason for such violent spectacle is thin but effective. As a child, Patel’s Kid suffered a trauma that is largely left off-screen, but is nonetheless pretty obvious before a third act flashback. As an adult, he makes ends meet by taking his beatings in a squalid Mumbai fight club. There the Kid is asked to dress up as “the monkey” and to lose badly. During daylight hours, meanwhile, he gets ever closer to entering the guarded realms of corrupt government officials, one of whom he dreams of killing in a righteous act of vengeance for his mother—and perhaps for all of India itself.

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A straightforward revenger’s tragedy, Monkey Man’s plotting can be fleet and at times muddied. Yet as a genre piece built on cultural specificity, the film is trenchant in its layering, anguish, and finally rage. Visibly inspired by gritty international martial arts spectacles like Gareth Evans’ The Raid and Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy, Monkey Man paints a noirish nightmare out of 21st century urban Indian sprawl. In a brisk 114 minutes, Patel gallops through the streets of Maharashtrian slums and glossy aeries where the city’s elites nest. The effect is one of despair and gloom, but also exuberance. The film, like the titular character, cannot hold still.

The heaviness of the film’s blows also comes from more than just the ruthlessness of stunt coordinator Brahim Chab’s fight choreography (although that too is merciless). Here awaits a barely concealed anger Patel keeps at a roaring simmer throughout the movie until it finally boils over. In fact, the first act of Monkey Man is not necessarily wall-to-wall action. But a gnawing sense of tension is never relieved until Patel is allowed to go fully rabid. To see this character rip into someone’s leg as they try to crawl away on a wet bathroom floor is to be granted cathartic release.

The rage of the character is fueled by an act of cruelty endured in his childhood that must be answered. Yet the film is clearly building off real-world tensions in modern India and growing resentment over political realities that feel a million miles away from the more righteous and lighthearted spectacle of, say, the uber-nationalistic RRR. While existing as a simple entertainment, there are palpable demons in Patel’s onscreen battles.

And the battles themselves are spectacular. The first-time helmer eschews the wide, clean cinematography that has swung back to popularity in the past decade, particularly to the delight of John Wick fans. Yet Monkey Man doesn’t fully pivot back to the incoherent shaky-cam chaos of the 2000s. Patel’s camera is surely frantic here (much like the main character when in motion), but Chab’s blocking largely remains legible while being so lightning-quick that the camera struggles to keep up.

More impressive is the choice to forego the recent trend of action heroes being near invulnerable boogeymen. There isn’t a single action sequence where the wrath-filled Kid doesn’t feel in over his head or in danger of being slaughtered on the spot. His fury is only matched by a deliberate sloppiness that leaves him broken and bleeding nearly as many times as he seems to have the upper-hand. It is a refreshing return to the frailty of action heroes gone by, and makes up for the fact that at the end of the day, this reviewer does still prefer clean and crisp cinematography while watching choreography, be it of a dance or a dance to the death.

Additionally, as well thought out as the film’s action sequences and atmosphere is, narratively one senses Patel’s storytelling prowess cannot yet quite match his ambitions. Even with minimal characterization, Monkey Man struggles to keep supporting players’ motivations or importance always clear to viewers, and the intentions of key elements of the third act bloodbath all but vanish during the film’s crimson-hued fog of war.

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Monkey Man is a passionate, relentless spectacle; it’s also a first effort that shows extreme promise despite the places it stumbles and skids while trying to go ever full-tilt. The result is a breathtaking experience, if not an always smooth one. But this means Patel’s rampage as a director is only beginning. His ability to prove himself as one of the most exciting action stars of his generation is already cemented out of the gate.

Monkey Man premiered at SXSW on March 11. It opens nationwide on April 5.


4 out of 5