Dev Patel’s debut film ‘Monkey Man’ has more than just action


Monkey Man’s existence defies all odds. Directed by, written by, and starring Dev Patel (who  also starred in Slumdog Millionaire).Monkey Man is his directorial debut. The film was almost canceled several times due to everything from COVID-19 shutdowns, to budget concerns, to concerns about its political messaging. And yet, it exists, an underdog story that is itself an underdog story, and one that is fully Patel’s film.

For one thing, hardly any other character matters. Monkey Man is about a poor underground fighter (Patel) who seeks revenge on the oppressive government that killed his mother. He has an implied love interest (Sobhita Dhulipala) and a mentor (Vipin Sharma), but they are used for little more than motivating him to punch harder. Though the film is a solid two hours, the plot is totally simple: Dev Patel is going to kill a guy, and it will be very cool.

The action in the film is brutal and outstanding. For a debut film, especially one made on a low budget, Monkey Man is the gold standard. The camera whips with such ferocity that every fight feels truly life-or-death, and the choreography is insanely inventive. Brawls unfold like puzzles, littered with little details that will turn the battle later — a dropped knife here, a convenient drawer there. Plenty of moments are gasp-inducing, and even simple hand-to-hand bouts are exhilarating.

The action is not the entire movie, though. While there are two massive, climactic action set pieces, lots of cool-down material surrounds them. This material, often more serious, is also much more hit-or-miss. Several flashbacks explain Patel’s character’s backstory out-of-order and in an intentionally confusing way for a little while. And examinations of the antagonist party’s politics are not under-realized, but perhaps underexplored. It’s likely that viewers with a better understanding of Indian politics will greatly appreciate these parts of the movie but for those without, they only vaguely gesture at villainous depth.

Much of the film concerns the marginalized in society. The best example of this is the hijra, a religious community of gender non-conforming people, who take in and mentor Patel’s character. Ostensibly, they’re a sort of random (but welcome) inclusion — their reason for helping Patel is slightly flimsy. Yet, they help to ground the film in the realistic struggle against oppression, and besides, are a respectable representation of a vibrant community. They are what elevates the film beyond just “Indian John Wick” or “Indian Bruce Lee.” By depicting the vulnerability of so many in India, Patel creates a much more believable and compelling underdog narrative for his vengeance quest.

Patel has made his stance on this clear in interviews, saying, “The action genre has sometimes been abused by the system. I wanted to give it real soul, real trauma, real pain.” In other words, the action and its corresponding culture are a package deal. 

Patel is right: in combining his world-class action with a mature cultural framework, he strengthens both. Like most first-time directors, he may bite off a bit more than he can chew, but like its hero, Monkey Man’s roughness only makes it more charming.