Monkey Man Is a Kick-Ass Directorial Debut for Dev Patel

Welcome to the era of Dev Patel, action hero.

Monkey Man movie still
Universal Pictures
Inverse Reviews

Oscar-nominated actor Dev Patel has been many things. A rambunctious Bristol teenager in Skins, a Mumbai game show contestant in Slumdog Millionaire, the foolish Gawain in The Green Knight — but are you ready for Dev Patel, the Indian action hero?

At this year’s South by Southwest film festival, Patel premiered his screenwriting and directorial debut, the bloody-knuckled action thriller Monkey Man. It was initially supposed to hit Netflix as a streaming-only title, but after producer Jordan Peele caught a pre-screening, he acquired the title under his company Monkeypaw Productions because he felt Patel’s violent passion project deserved theatrical distribution. Peele’s instincts are spot-on, as Patel created something so bone-crunching and stylistically beautiful that it had Austin’s Paramount Theater howling with glee. A bit of Bruce Lee, a dash of John Wick, and plenty of cultural representation go a long way in Monkey Man — even if Patel’s fiery storytelling sometimes tries to accomplish too much.

On top of writing, directing, and producing, Patel stars as an Indian orphan scraping together whatever meager living he can when not competing in a gorilla mask in an underground fighting ring run by the scummy manager Tiger (Sharlto Copley). Known as “Kid,” Patel’s underdog decides he’s fed up with his nation’s status quo of corrupt leaders who systematically victimize lower-class citizens. His sights are first set on Chief of Police Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher), the villain who murdered his mother, before he advances to killing who would be the “Big Bad” in video game terms, a manipulative trickster of a spiritual guru pulling all the strings, Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande). Although, as Patel’s novice ass-kicker will learn, it’ll take more than a handgun and uncontrolled rage to overthrow an entire system — even if he has to find out the hard way.

Patel’s adoration for the action genre is exhilarating and compelling, since the film wears canon influences like badges of honor. Direct reference to Bruce Lee films, Hong Kong martial arts classics, Korean takes on the subgenre, and plenty more become loving homages as fists furiously fly. Monkey Man might earn easy John Wick comparisons, but Patel’s directorial vision has more in common with anything from The Raid to Enter the Dragon. Patel presents like a student who wants to make their master proud, never outright copying for clout, but instead using inspirations to embolden his unique, bigger-picture take on action cinema. Characters often choose bladed weapons over gun-fu, veering more into The Night Comes for Us territory, with the camera not shying away from graphic assassinations stained with red juiciness.

Sharlto Copley impresses as a scummy manager of Patel’s underdog fighter.

Universal Pictures

Monkey Man derives its name from Hindu mythology about Hanuman, the Monkey God, which is only one example of how Patel champions his Indian heritage. Patel honors India’s “masala” filmmaking style that blends multiple genres into one production, pumping tangled webs of drama or harsh political messaging between action sequences. It’s no Bollywood epic, or a Tollywood stunner like RRR — don’t expect a “Naatu Naatu” equivalent in Monkey Man. Patel tries to showcase how action movies can be more than cheap thrills on his own terms. It’s a balancing act that maybe gets lost in the first-timer’s bevy of intentions; the second act’s training scenes, and even the first act’s instigating factors that send the Kid down a warpath, feel thinner than necessary. Something like the upcoming Indian action knockout Kill attempts the same feat, to evolve a lead character from modest brawler to unstoppable murder machine, and does so without feeling the drag. Patel’s first time behind the camera is no doubt impressive, but don’t expect a flawless victory.

When the proverbial shit does hit the fan, and Patel emerges a one-kick knockout machine, Monkey Man hits full-throttle and leaves all those pacing woes behind. Patel’s lean and lanky physique becomes a source of comedy early on because he’s hardly a professional John McClane type, but the brutalistic third act extinguishes any cheeky sparks of humor. Then it’s all about Patel’s fancy, lighting-quick knifeplay and some knockout finishing moves that get grotesquely creative (sometimes you’ve got to use your mouth when both hands are busy). The actor moves comfortably through impressive fight choreography by the esteemed Brahim Chab (featured on-screen as masked ring menace "King Kobra"), a stunt coordinator and actor who's worked with legends like Jackie Chan and Donnie Yen. Patel’s glorious showdown against Sikandar Kher’s iron-chinned Rana proves that the actor-turned-director is more than capable of trading blows with veterans who’ve been bruised and battered before — no imposter qualities to be found.

Dev Patel is a force of nature as “Kid,” a bareknuckle brawler who decides to take down a corrupt system, one headshot at a time.

Universal Pictures

Patel ensures that excitement is at a premium when the gloves officially come off, but even more interestingly, he emphasizes Indian representation. Whether fighting against a flame-colored battlefield tapestry depicting Hanuman in action or using a ferociously chunky riff from the Indian folk metal band Bloodywood’s song “Dana‐dan,” Patel never deviates from his thematic mission. Monkey Man is an Indian action film, and Patel refuses to let you forget.

Dev Patel’s first crack at moviemaking is a punishing and personally reflective ode to the action genre in more ways than one. There’s the succeeding action spectacle of it all, which makes Monkey Man a prime target for franchise installments that’d be welcomed with open arms. Then there’s the vocal condemnation of government wrongdoings and remorseless bigotry, stressing the power of communal togetherness over a ruling few. Monkey Man is a story about revolution and underdogs, snapped limbs and bloody scythes, which can be unwieldy as subplots bump into one another. But it ultimately delivers precisely what trailers promise: kick-ass combat. Patel easily fits the action mold despite any judgmental preconceptions, and adds another bonafide facet to the already well-regarded actor’s career.

Monkey Man premiered at SXSW 2024 on March 11. It releases in theaters April 5.

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