Film review: Monkey Man

This ultra-violent revenge flick set in a mythical Mumbai launches Dev Patel as a fresh new director and an action man in the making.

Apr 05, 2024, updated Apr 05, 2024
Dev Patel in his new film 'Monkey Man'. Photo: Universal

Dev Patel in his new film 'Monkey Man'. Photo: Universal

Could Dev Patel be so fed up waiting to be offered an action role that he co-wrote, directed and cast himself against his usual soulful type?

Whatever the case, the results are in and it’s a blast.

The story is messy but starts in a tacky wrestling ring where Kid (Dev Patel), in a tattered monkey mask, takes beatings while a friend makes money on the side. At the heart of his thirst for violence is vengeance: the revenge of a young boy who hid and watched while the chief of police Rana (Sikander Kher) raped and murdered his mother, then set fire to their house.

Kid’s motives are clear but there are false stops and starts as he manipulates himself into position to get to Rana, and the mysterious guru cum property developer with a Jaguar Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), whose interests Rana serves.

This wild and stylish film ­– co-written by John Collee, who worked on Hotel Mumbai with Patel – has echoes of Tarantino and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, but also touches on Indian mysticism, religious and sexual bigotry, and a range of Hindu divinities. Kid’s mother used to tell him about the Monkey King, Hanuman, and there are references to the Ramayana story as well.

So, Kid is on a life journey that takes him, via a near-death experience, to a community of transvestites who are shunned by society. Among them, he learns to fight to the intense beat of a drummer who coaches Kid’s energy from man into beast.

When the time for vengeance arrives, it is ultra-violent, neon-lit and jubilant, too. As Kid rolls up in his monkey mask, the exquisite call-girl Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala) lends him a hand and the transvestites become whirling dervishes wielding scythes.

All this is totally brilliant and completely engaging, as is the violent fight choreography where if you need a weapon you re-use the knife stuck in your leg. A serious nod, too, to the driving and eclectic musical score from ex-Adelaidean Jed Kurzel, which underpins and guides the manic mood.

It seems picky to say there are too many red herrings and the film’s early stages build and squander too much energy. Putting that aside, Patel carries the movie in every sense and his infectious charisma – hard not to love even while smashing someone’s face to pulp – lights up the screen.

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Hollywood director Jordan Peele (Get Out and Nope) was so impressed he came on as a producer, because who ever heard of a semi-mystical Indian revenge drama starring Dev Patel? It is a kaleidoscopic journey into violence that is all the more astonishing given it is Patel’s first film as director.

Monkey Man is in cinemas now.

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