‘Monkey Man’ Review: A Revenge Thriller Packed With Punches, Politics, Fury and Joy

This ambitious movie is a blood-filled vengeance tale, a diatribe against institutional injustice, an ode to Indian culture, and a case for Dev Patel as a prodigiously muscled action hero.

Dev Patel in Monkey Man. Akhirwan Nurhaidir (ewet) / Universal Pictures

A kitchen-sink directorial debut from actor Dev PatelMonkey Man is a knife-through-the-throat revenge thriller, a diatribe against institutional injustice and wealth inequality, an ode to both ancient and modern Indian culture and folklore, and a portfolio that proudly displays the action hero bona fides of its prodigiously muscled leading man— who just so happens to be the director himself. It’s an everything, all at once approach that at times threatens to overwhelm a knock-about good time with too many portents of meaning. But Patel, teaming with producer Jordan Peele and his Monkey Paw production house, manages to pull off his ambitious plan thanks to a plethora of fury, joy, and just enough moments of bold cinematic repurposing, if not reinvention.  

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MONKEY MAN ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Directed by: Dev Patel
Written by: Dev Patel, Paul Angunawela, John Collee
Starring: Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley, Sikandar Kher, Pitobash Tripathi, Vipin Sharma, Sobhita Dhulipala, Ashwini Kalsekar, Adithi Kalkunte, Makarand Deshpande
Running time: 122 mins.

Monkey Man uncoils like a South Asian remix of the Batman myth, but one where the central inspiring tragedy is not committed by a couple of pearl-snatching thugs in an alley, but by the same type of systemic injustice that holds many down in the modern world. 

Here it comes in the form of a sneering, mustachioed chief of police (Indian actor Sikandar Kher) who murders the mother of the hero (Patel’s character is called Kid in the press notes and, when not in his Monkey Man get up, calls himself Bobby in the film), and sets her and the rest of the village ablaze at the behest of the elites to whom the chief is indentured.   

The hero is left with scars psychological and literal: his badly burned hands are one of many aspects of his identity that connects him to the Hindu deity Hanuman. Patel’s film is meant to serves as a modern updating of the Hanuman, a divine monkey who once was said to have climbed a tree and grabbed the sun, thinking it a mango. Another link they share is evidenced by his day job: donning an ape-like mask, our hero ekes out a living as both heel and patsy in an underground fight club run by a sleazy South African promoter (Sharlto Copley, from District 9 and Beast.)

After cleverly gaining entry to the King’s Club, a high-end brothel and drug den frequented by local and foreign elites and overseen with ruthless authority by Queenie (the popular Marathi and Hindi language actor Ashwini Kalsekar), Kid unleashes a bold yet unsuccessful attack in a club bathroom. It is a set-piece that goes toe-to-toe with the washroom contretemps in 2018’s Mission: Impossible-Fallout, without quite besting it.

Dev Patel in Monkey Man. Universal Pictures

Set in the fictional Indian metropolis of Yatana and shot in Indonesia, Patel’s film is awash with violence of every sort in every setting— in the ring, on an elevator, in a rundown brothel where the pissed off proprietor wields an ax, etc. After he is nursed back to health in a hidden temple by a group of third gender mystics, Kid finally confronts the big bad guy in a lengthy face off pieced together by a team of editors to look like a continuous take. 

All of this whiz bang bloodletting is scored to needle drops that are sometimes playful—his training is spurred on by a cheeky tabla player—and sometimes corny: when drugs are introduced, we get a remix of Jefferson Airplane’s “Somebody to Love.”

These moments—like the one in which Patel’s camera lingers on people sleeping on the street as cars race by—speak to the director’s heavy touch when trying to drive home his themes. It would feel more tiresome if it weren’t countered by his impatient enthusiasm: having aced both cinema studies and social science, Patel comes off like a kid super eager to show off their report card. 

In the end, all is forgiven because Patel and his DP Sharone Meir (he also shot last year’s similarly themed John Woo revenge thriller Silent Night, and Damien Chazelle’s beloved Whiplash) have the good sense to make sure their star always looks as gorgeously heroic as humanly possible. 

Indeed, there must be some extra padding in that monkey mask because his face stays mercifully unblemished despite the considerable beating he takes. Even when Patel’s character is posing as a dishwasher, his crisp white work shirt is perfectly fitted and red carpet ready. 

Who knows if it was on the list of Patel’s lengthy agenda in undertaking the project, but if there was any doubt that he was capable of filling James Bond’s loafers, he himself has quashed it.

‘Monkey Man’ Review: A Revenge Thriller Packed With Punches, Politics, Fury and Joy