‘Monkey Man’ Review: Dev Patel Directs and Stars in a Revenge Thriller That Both Fascinates and Frustrates

The fictional underground fight club in Dev Patel’s erratic directorial debut feature Monkey Man looks like many others: a dilapidated space crowded with bodies thrusting fistfuls of cash in the air while hurling insults at their least favorite contender. No amount of harsh overhead lighting can shake the shadowy atmosphere of the venue, which is run by a slippery figure (Sharlto Copley), who handles rupees with unnerving greed. Here, in this claustrophobic environment, a young man regularly subjects himself to humiliating defeats.

The fighter, a scrawny guy whose swagger looks put-on, hides his face in a monkey mask. It is an ill-fitting piece of headwear that stays permanently askew. They call him the Kid (Patel) and it soon becomes clear that these beatings are part performance and part masochistic ritual. Memories of his dead mother haunt him, and early flashbacks reveal a tranquil childhood interrupted by gruesome violence. The young man expects to lose each night, but he is biding his time — chasing a goal greater than money.

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Premiering at SXSW, Monkey Man chronicles the Kid’s uneven path to avenging his mother. The figure at the heart of the story is an unlikely hero, a quiet man whose obvious lack of strength belies a deeper courage and stubborn determination. With Monkey Man, Patel offers an allegorical story that combines the technical and heroic sensibilities of his favorite action figures (Bruce Lee, John Wick) with the mythologies rooted in his ethnic identity.

Since Slumdog Millionaire swept the Oscars in 2009, Patel has been on a journey to understanding his relationship to India. The actor was raised in London by Gujarati Indian parents who were born in Kenya. He’s talked in the past about criticisms lodged against his casting and a desire to understand his heritage. “Sometimes I feel stuck in this cultural no-man’s land,” he said in a 2021 interview with The Guardian. “I’m not British enough to be fully British, not Indian enough to be fully Indian.” More than a realization of childhood dreams or a reclamation of cultural traditions, Monkey Man is Patel’s assertion of belonging. It’s an attempt — ambitious, imperfect and sometimes messy — to rummage through the bits of his identity and use the findings to create his own lore.

Patel wrote Monkey Man with Paul Angunawela and Hotel Mumbai writer John Collee. The film pulls its framework from the legend of Hanuman, a monkey commander in Hindu mythology who is held up as an example of courage, devotion and strength. He was cursed to forget his powers as punishment by the gods, but remembers them one day with the king of bears’ assistance. Armed with a renewed sense of his own strength, Hanuman uses his powers to help Rama, a Hindu deity, rescue his wife from a demon.

Monkey Man opens with the Kid as a young boy (Jatin Malik) learning the story of Hanuman from his mother (Adithi Kalkunte). The flashbacks are rendered as a dreamy, nostalgic trip — an abstract melange of green foliage, flashes of calming smiles and the pages of a picture book being turned.

These peaceful images of rural life along with their immediate destruction haunt the Kid, whose present-day environment is defined by the grit of Yatana. DP Sharon Meir (Whiplash) captures this fictional Indian urban locale as a frenetic affair — the uncontrolled soundscape includes speeding rickshaws, persistent hawkers, the excitable chatter of adults and the mischievous laughs of children running through the streets.

Although the Kid calls this place home, his relationship to the community really only comes to life in a scene where he conscripts his neighbors to gather information and steal a wallet. The way the object moves between hands bristles with an exciting energy that sadly only occurs sporadically throughout the film. For all its clear passion, Monkey Man struggles to build on impressive moments like this one, as it strains to overcome the challenge of a screenplay that is at once too broad and too narrow.

After securing the necessary intel, the Kid goes undercover as a dishwasher and then waiter at an elite club run by ruthless manager Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar) and frequented by the most powerful people in Yatana, including Rana (Sikandar Kher), the police officer who killed his mother. Patel’s first act shrewdly builds an understanding of these key players, and also folds in more characters like the Kid’s reluctant sidekick Alphonso (Pitobash) and his love interest, an alluring escort named Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala). These early sections feature some brilliant action sequences, with Patel embodying the Kid’s amateur nature through fights brimming with the nervous energy of anger and a shoddily constructed plan.

The Kid doesn’t take down Rana the first time, which leads him to become the focus of an intense police search. Like Hanuman, the Kid finds his strength through community. With the help of Alpha (Vipin Sharma) and other hijra, a tribe of third-gender people, the Kid undergoes intense training and a renewal of faith. It’s in these intermediary chapters that Monkey Man stumbles. Patel weaves in elements of contemporary Indian politics, but an overall lack of specificity left this critic with more questions than answers; there’s a nagging tension here between the potential nuances of the story’s political context and the desire to stage a basic encounter between good and evil. Monkey Man’s attempt to connect mythology, politics and the personal results in a movie that only does each element, at best, half-justice. The over-reliance on cliché in an already spare screenplay doesn’t help either.

Still, Patel makes a fine hero. The actor is a consistently charming presence whose capabilities have only grown since Skins and his breakthrough role in Slumdog. In Monkey Man, he delivers a mature performance on par with his work in David Lowery’s The Green Knight. Similar to Gawain, the Kid is out to prove the depth of his moral courage. Much of his commitment is tested through fight scenes in the first and third acts, which demonstrate Patel’s confidence as a director. The intentional clumsiness at the beginning — a sign of the Kid’s sophomoric approach to vengeance — later gives way to a compelling precision and agility.

Toward the end of the film, the club transforms into a death trap, with the director staging scenes that revel in the process of defeating enemies. Every level of the building — from the kitchen washroom on the first floor to the opulent bar on the top floor — becomes a new terrain for the Kid to impale, dismember and murder. In these scenes, however gruesome, Patel becomes his own hero, embodying the kind of smooth valor he’s always admired.

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