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Vibrant and violent: Dev Patel’s impressive directorial debut ‘Monkey Man’

Brimming with passion, sentiment, and over-the-top violence, Dev Patel’s directorial debut Monkey Man, melds the typical action film with social conscience and commentary not typically seen in the genre. 

Co-written, directed and starring Patel (Lion, Slumdog Millionaire), this brawler allows the actor to stray from his typical “guy that hacks the mainframe” roles, as he says, and go full-throttle into gritty, sweaty, sexy violence.

As its cinema run comes to a close, earning over $30 million worldwide at the box office, Patel has cemented himself as a promising, up-and-coming director.

Writer-director-star Dev Patel in Monkey Man, which he worked on for over eight years. Photograph: Universal Studios

In Yatana, neon lights pervade the streets casting shadows of sleazy figures that slink in its alleyways. In this fictional city not dissimilar from Mumbai, the rich and powerful rule, while the working class are pushed into a seedy underbelly to be ignored. Sleeping on top of each other in squalid slums, it is clear those in the upper echelons regard them as sub-human. 

At night, a young man, referred to only as ‘Kid’, waits in the pits of a steamy underground wrestling ring where he dons a gorilla mask and is pummelled for pitiful money. Nothing but a masochistic performing monkey, he finds solace in the story of the Hindu monkey spirit ‘Hanuman’, a superman-like figure. With years of pent-up rage, he finds a way to infiltrate the inner circle of the elite and exact a merciless crusade of retribution for his tortured past. 

Kid is paid to get pummeled by more popular fighters in the underground wrestling ring. Photograph: Universal Studios

Monkey Man is not just any revenge movie, which Patel says can sometimes “lack conscience”. It explores themes such as police corruption and brutality, identity, Hindu mythology and even gender, as Kid is taken in by a transgender community, called Hijra, who are shunned in Indian society. 

Animalistic references are scattered throughout Monkey Man: ‘Tiger’ is the owner of the fight club, and the corrupt religious figure Kid despises is named ‘The Lion of India.’ The bestial notions of underdog and visceral survival are spotlighted in the action sequences as Kid exacts nothing short of carnal carnage. 

Patel says the fighting in Monkey Man was inspired by Bruce Lee, one of his childhood heroes. The action is by far the best thing about this film with choreography nothing short of spectacular, as Kid fends off hordes of enemies using over-the-top improvised weapons, such as a dinner tray to slice off someone's thumb. Sequences are composed with such ferocity that it is hard not to giggle at the pure nonsensical violence and gore. 

The film dazzles with alluring lighting, impeccable performances from the entire ensemble and breathtaking set design. However, the spiritual and political elements of the film felt glossed over. Significant elements including the spiritual leader’s character and Kid's relationship with Sita, the prostitute, were barely touched on, while repetitive flashbacks to his mother's death were unnecessary. 

Unfortunately, haphazard cutting and disorienting shaky-cam diminish the impact of Monkey Man, especially in earlier action sequences. Poor framing choices and excessive close-ups result in a loss of scale and an unintended sense of claustrophobia. While these may have been intentional stylistic choices to demonstrate Kid’s flaws and desperation, they ultimately disrupt the film’s flow.

Additionally, strange song choices such as a jarring remix of "Roxanne" by The Police during a key club scene detract from a tender moment of mutual acknowledgement between Kid and Sita.

Originally bought by Netflix, American comedian and filmmaker Jordan Peele (Get Out) campaigned for its April cinema release and adopted the film into his own production company MonkeyPaw

Patel absolutely deserves credit for his ambition. Although imperfect, Monkey Man has the potential to be one of the best action movies of the year. 

After all, Patel’s passion is splattered all over the screen. 


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