Dev Patel is hopped up on the visual language and legacy of action cinema in Monkey Man, a walloping sucker punch of a debut feature from the star of Slumdog Millionaire and The Green Knight. Based on Patel’s original story, written alongside Paul Angunawela and John Collee, and produced by Jordan Peele through Monkeypaw Productions, the film is a blood and sweat slicked coming out party not just for a sharp new directorial talent, but a self-styled action star that no one expected. 

Set in the fictional city of Yatana, Patel stars as Kid, a haunted young man who barely makes a living in an underground fighting ring. Drawing strength from the tale of Hanuman, the Hindu ape deity his mother told him tales of as a child, Kid dons a gorilla mask and takes falls against more popular fighters to make cash to scrape by. After years of suppressing his rage, Kid sets a revenge plot in motion that will take him from the gutter of Yatana’s sprawling slums, to the top of its most glittering skyscraper, and face to face with the man responsible for the death of his mother and the sham holy man who holds all of India in the palm of his hand. 

Monkey Man freely mixes Patel’s personal action influences into a breathless revenger set to a thumping, eclectic soundtrack: constantly twisting the dial from psychedelic rock to Bollywood to metal. Visually and thematically, the writer/director draws from the cinema of Bruce Lee, Gareth Evans’ The Raid, the Korean revenge boom, and, of course, John Wick to craft a concussive cosmopolitan smash-up of world action influences boldly infused with the specificities and rhythms of his ancestral India, creating something that’s at once familiar yet totally unique. 

Patel has cinematographer Sharone Meir on hand to capture every meaty thunk and wince-inducing crunch of the fight sequences with the same white-knuckle intensity he brought to the drumming scenes in Whiplash. Meir favors a handheld camera that stays within spitting (or, bleeding) distance of the actors, keeping the viewer’s nose perilously close to Brahim Chab’s exceptional fight choreography. But outside these brutal clashes, Meir’s approach remains intoxicatingly immersive, whether we join Kid for a death-defying Tuk-tuk chase, for a drink in a neon-soaked nightclub, or to experience the celebratory chaos of Diwali, every sequence is awash with gorgeously tactile nighttime imagery. Though filmed in Batam, Indonesia, Yatana is an artist's vision of an urban India pulled from dreams made glitteringly real.

Patel is joined onscreen by a killer supporting cast of talented Indian actors (plus his Chappie co-star Sharlto Copley) but ultimately, Monkey Man is a showcase for its director/lead. The lanky actor brings real physical power and grace to the role, creating an underdog who can take a beating, lose a fight, or hilariously fail to crash through a window and keep on ticking. While Patel’s film celebrates his Indian heritage, he also uses this Hanuman-inspired heroes journey to criticize institutional corruption and explore themes specific to India with broader, timeless implications for the modern world. Kid’s battle from the kitchen to the penthouse of the King’s Club mirror’s the country’s caste system, and far right, Modi-era Hindu nationalism is presented in the figures of Kher’s Rana, a corrupt police chief, and Makarand Deshpande as Baba Shakti, a conniving spiritual guru who uses his position of influence to achieve his own greedy ends. Perhaps the film’s most stirring element (and one which will resonate most profoundly stateside) is the inclusion of the hijra, who rescue and restore Patel’s character when he’s in a tight spot and get their own scene of crowd-pleasing badassery late in the film. Officially recognized as a third gender across the indian subcontinent, Patel’s hijra, headed by veteran actor Vipin Sharma (and including Pehan Abdul, Dayangky Zyana, and Reva Marchellin, three hijra actors making their screen debuts) serve as the brave, beating heart of Monkey Man and a call for solidarity with those who exist outside the gender binary or anyone who is othered not just in India, but in repressive societies everywhere. 

Steeped in cinephilia, gleefully violent, and bone-crunchingly immersive while also being gorgeous to look at, Monkey Man is an occasionally frantic but always confident beat ‘em up that announces Dev Patel as a talent to watch. The director and star creates a frenetic and heartfelt ode to the movies and country that shaped him, and though his character is put through the wringer, he never lets us see him sweat. The film isn’t just the most impressive pure action spectacle in recent memory, but is as diverse a creation as its many influences; at once a revenge opus, spiritual journey, and political statement, Monkey Man holds brutal multitudes in its breakneck two hours, and it’ll knock you the fuck out. 

Movie Score: 4/5

  • Rocco T. Thompson
    About the Author - Rocco T. Thompson

    Rocco T. Thompson is a writer and critic based in Austin, Texas. His work is frequently featured in Rue Morgue where he penned the cover story for the magazine's first ever Queer Fear special issue, and he served as producer for In Search of Darkness: Part III, the final installment in the popular ‘80s horror documentary series.