The film “Monkey Man,” made by first-time director Dev Patel, is a gruesome exploration of the depths of human depravity.

Estimated read time 5 min read


The story of Monkey Man is one of struggle – for the main character, played by Dev Patel, a former actor turned writer-director, it was a journey of oppression, trauma, and anger that eventually led to seeking revenge in the seedy world of fight clubs in an Indian slum. Patel’s directorial debut took years of hard work to bring to the screen, with production beginning in Batam, Indonesia before the Covid pandemic hit. At its premiere in SXSW on Monday night, Patel shared that everything that could go wrong, did – resulting in delays, difficulties finding a distributor, and ultimately a deal with Netflix instead of a theatrical release.

Jordan Peele stepped in to save the movie from being released straight to streaming and got it onto the big screen through a deal with Universal, showing confidence in the film’s potential. At the premiere, Peele praised director Patel’s skills, particularly in crafting fast-paced, intense fight scenes. The film’s setting in a bustling Indian city, based on a Hindu legend and dealing with the aftermath of state-sanctioned violence, is well-suited for a theatrical release.

Although excitement is maybe not the word I would use to describe the experience of watching Monkey Man; the film’s nearly two hours are almost relentlessly grim, even in its hero’s victorious moments. Patel’s Kid is largely wordless, either tortured by flashbacks to his mother’s (Adithi Kalkunte) horrific murder in a village raid or steeled against a near-army of people ready to ruthlessly cut him down. This is a brooding, bruising revenge film whose arc is more one of capability than redemption. For Kid begins the film an underdog, battered by state corruption and the fighters of an underground ring run by the skeevy white dude Tiger (Sharlto Copley) in the fictional Indian city of Yatana, where Kid dons a gorilla mask and gets beaten to a pulp for cash. (Patel can be a very literal film-maker – the ring, dim and teeming with particles of Earth, looks like it’s actually underground.)

Kid, inspired by the Hindu monkey deity Hanuman and driven by a intense rage, devises a plan to infiltrate the world of the wealthy elite who have wronged not only him but also countless other impoverished individuals in their pursuit of power. This includes the ruthless Queenie, manager of an upscale brothel, corrupt police officer Rana, responsible for the murder of Kid’s mother, and the power-hungry Baba Shakti, a guru turned politician who manipulates spiritual teachings to justify his land grabs. Kid is aided by a few accomplices, including street hustler Alphonso and Sita, an attractive escort at Queenie’s establishment, whose only defining feature is a tattoo revealing her rural background.

In the middle portion of the movie, the plot becomes a bit confusing as the protagonist, Kid, finds refuge with the hijra- a marginalized community of individuals who identify as “third-gender” including trans women, intersex, and gender-nonconforming individuals. They take him in and help him improve his skills to an extreme level. This information is sourced from the press materials, which make numerous references to Hinduism, Indian subcultures, and political issues specific to the state. These elements may be unfamiliar to many viewers, including myself. However, it can be assumed that the film uses real news clips of violence based on religious and political conflicts in India in order to condemn this violence and the use of Hindu nationalism as a justification for it.

If you are seeking intense revenge and vivid hand-to-hand combat, Monkey Man delivers. Patel successfully captures the chaotic energy of the slum and the unsettling world of a fighter. However, the script co-written by Paul Angunawela and John Collee lacks depth and texture. Kid stands out as not your typical action hero, in the vein of John Wick, with inspiration drawn from Korean revenge films, Bollywood, Bruce Lee, and the 2011 Indonesian thriller The Raid. Patel remains captivating and empathetic, even as he transforms into a convincing killer. However, besides his mission, past trauma, and adversaries, there is little to Kid’s character.

Still, Monkey Man offers some cinematic treats – an early scene communicating the Kid’s chain of command with his people crackles, as does any scene in the streets; Patel’s attempts to simulate Kid’s perspective as he learns to fight and kill – rapid-fire edits, blurred vision, camera on a constant swivel – imbue the action with an immersive and vertiginous, if at time wearisome, momentum. His visual style is an at times discombobulating mix of TV soap, gritty character drama and slick Hollywood action.

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The journey may have its ups and downs, but it is full of exciting moments and stunning visuals that are just right for a debut director. Despite some rough patches, Monkey Man proves that Patel has the skills to create an action-packed film both in front of and behind the camera. He should be given more opportunities to showcase his talents in the future.

  • Monkey Man is screening at the SXSW festival and will be out in cinemas on 5 April


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