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‘Monkey Man’ Review: Dev Patel’s Film Offers A New Action Hero

April 5, 20247 Mins Read

Let’s get this out of the way first: With “Monkey Man,” Dev Patel, 33, co-wrote his way out of what might have been years of more Hollywood hell. White male-directed films like “Slumdog Millionaire,” others where he would have played the love interest of white women like in “Lion” or the nice, tokenized South Asian character like in “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.”

As the lead in “Monkey Man,” the actor and debut director has the free rein to portray his full potential. His character in the new movie, referred to as Kid, is a street-fighting, wrecking ball of a man with nothing to lose except his will to obliterate everyone and everything who’s ever stood in the way of he and his mom (Adithi Kalkunte) living free lives in India.

That includes the corrupt cop (Sikandar Kher) who assaulted and killed Kid’s mother when Kid was a mere child. Kid is the brown manifestation of the quintessential Hollywood action hero — think John Wick or The Bride in “Kill Bill” or any one of Pam Grier’s characters from the ’70s or Bruce Lee’s influential roles — who’s had enough. Kid is pissed, poor and angry.

It’s immediately clear that Patel was inspired by some of those famous fictional heroes that all left an indelible mark on the action genre. They’re motivated by a need to avenge and usurp the actions of the more powerful, propelled by their own grit, unprocessed trauma and rage.

With co-writers Paul Angunawela and John Collee, Patel tries to bring all of those inspirations to the fore as he reinvents his Hollywood persona into Kid, a sleek character who’s also not afraid to, say, act as a monkey-masked punching bag in a boxing ring for the right amount of rupees.

The actor turns himself into the action hero we don’t see nearly enough — a 6-foot-2 slender brown man with a deceivingly brickhouse torso and a heart he wears on his sleeve. It makes Kid easy to root for, especially when he’s out in the wild tossing knives into people’s eyeballs, cracking necks in alleyways and knocking villains upside the heads with broken bathroom sinks.

As both director and star, Patel delivers gripping action sequences in a film that's heartfelt, bloody and almost constantly thrilling.
As both director and star, Patel delivers gripping action sequences in a film that’s heartfelt, bloody and almost constantly thrilling.

Having spent countless nights lurking the streets or putting himself through physical hell, Kid acquires enough savviness to infiltrate his way inside the criminal organization responsible for the corruption that killed his mother and many others like her. And the audience braces itself as bloody and delightfully graphic action sequences begin to mount with slick precision.

While “Monkey Man” thrives in its action scenes and characterization, it falters a bit with its social and political exposition. On one hand, for an actor who’s had to contort himself inside a westernized perception of how a man of Indian descent thinks, feels and responds, it’s worth refreshingly subversive that Patel brings us into his world and has us figure our ways inside of it.

On the other hand? The film doesn’t always make that easy or even interesting. Multiple flashbacks early in the film are presumably meant for the audience to gain some insight into some of the trauma he’s experienced and his relationship with his mother. But not much of that becomes clear until late in the second act.

That’s mainly because these memories are more forcely illuminated through the spiritual guidance Kid receives from a group of hijra people who rescue Kid from a particularly dangerous endeavor to annihilate the cop inside a club. (To note: the hijra is a Hindu term for third gender-identifying people across South Asia.)

If you’re familiar with The Bride learning from Johnny Mo in “Kill Bill,” Morpheus training Neo in “The Matrix” or Bruce Wayne getting schooled by Ra’s al Ghul/Henri Ducard in “Batman Begins,” you’ll understand Kid’s relationship with the hijra. The hijra are the compassionate, badass souls Kid needs who have had to contend with their own societal degradation.

One of the best parts about "Monkey Man" is that it incorporates a storyline around a group of hirja people who offer Kid spiritual guidance — and a major assist in an unforgettable fight sequence late in the film.
One of the best parts about “Monkey Man” is that it incorporates a storyline around a group of hirja people who offer Kid spiritual guidance — and a major assist in an unforgettable fight sequence late in the film.

Akhirwan Nurhaidir (ewet)

They’re also a welcome addition to a fantastic fight sequence in the film’s climax, both as a nod to “Monkey Man” throwing so many action movie tropes out the window and Patel rewriting the reality of marginalized Indian people banning together to overthrow the power structure.

A political power structure, though, that isn’t adequately explained in the movie beyond vaguely pointing to the problematic caste system and elitism. As “Monkey Man” goes on, we realize it’s even more complicated than that, but it doesn’t bother much with those details.

That’s part of the risk with resting an action hero’s motivations on something beyond solely avenging a person’s death or an act of violence. It could become unwieldy and raise more questions. But those questions, as is the case here, could also mean that the audience is invested. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a movie with an almost completely brown, international cast.

As the film skates toward a breakneck conclusion with an admittedly satisfying death match, it’s hard not to also think about the other pesky questions left unanswered or flimsily answered. For instance, a little more explanation of the Indian myth of the monkey-man, Kid’s alter ego in the boxing ring, would better contextualize that aspect of his character and why it has meaning.

In addition, messaging around the deity Hanuman floats around “Monkey Man,” particularly in Kid’s flashbacks but that also doesn’t all the way resonate. While this is a nitpick (many action movies breeze past explaining these types of nuances), Patel made a point to bring up how meaningful this theme was to him and the film at its SXSW premiere in March.

“My grandfather used to tell me stories from Ramayana, particularly of Hanuman,” the actor told the audience, adding that his father had a necklace with a Hanuman pendant. “Those mythologies have so many interesting parallels to them.”

Amid Patel's admirable efforts to merge Indian mythology, storylines involving the sociopolitical conflicts throughout the country and classic action films, "Monkey Man" at times loses its way.
Amid Patel’s admirable efforts to merge Indian mythology, storylines involving the sociopolitical conflicts throughout the country and classic action films, “Monkey Man” at times loses its way.

Those parallels aren’t always clear in the film, though, even with the audience’s undivided attention. “When you put those stories in a caste system and the idea of the 1% against the elite,” Patel continued. “I was like, ‘I can take this and take what would be a ‘Lord Of the Rings’ type film and distill it down and give it some social weight.’”

With “Monkey Man,” he aims to fuse mythology — and religion, because the idea of a “man-made God” also folds into this story, too — into a helluva action film that sometimes tries to do too many things at once. Still, that’s admirable, particularly for an actor who seems to be just as complexly trying to reconcile or better understand his multiple identities.

Patel’s parents are Indian and from Nairobi, Kenya. They met after they immigrated to London, where Patel was born and raised. “The truth is I’m trying to understand myself better and my heritage, to figure things out, in the movie choices I make,” the actor has said in the past.

That’s fascinating to witness, especially on this global Hollywood scale. Even with its flaws, “Monkey Man” stands alone as a testament to what an actor can do once he takes his career into his own hands. Hollywood was likely not going to see Patel as an action hero. So, through his own grit and determination, he made himself one — with the help of producer Jordan Peele.

In a landscape that is increasingly being filled with newer and white stars, while older actors like Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise still command the action movie box office, it’s obvious that something has to evolve. “Monkey Man” is proof that Patel could be that change.

“Monkey Man” hits theaters Friday.

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