2 min read

Monkey Man

Aside from its muddled political commentary, Monkey Man is a delightful frenzy of fists and fights.
Monkey Man

In "Monkey Man," Dev Patel, both co-writer and director, plays the Kid, an unnamed protagonist hellbent on revenge. He is beaten nightly at an underground fight club, more eager to soak up a hit than he is to throw a punch. In lieu of his mother's murderers, he takes on the pain, crippled emotionally and wounded physically by the malicious burning of his home and community. He sleeps in a mess of strangers every night in Yatana, an analogue for Mumbai, while he recites the prayers his mother taught him before her untimely death.

The set-up meanders slightly, as if Patel himself is stretching his first time directorial muscles. But once the Kid's journey begins in earnest, Patel as both actor and director comes to life. Because though "Monkey Man" seeks to be more than a simple action thriller, it's in those fights, chases, and escapes that the movie shines best. Each fight is electric and kinetic, as the brawls spill into Yatana and vice versa. The choreography is crystal clear, with not a single moment lacking visual focus. Even its training montage oozes in style, underscored by Zakir Hussein playing the tabla. And like any revenge thriller worth its salt, it has its fair share of grisly, groan-inducing kills.

In the background and foreground of the Kid's story is a rampant rise in prejudice and violence against India's minorities. It's a valiant effort by Patel to make the film about more than wanton violence, highlighting the real plight of both Muslim and Hijra people in today's India. But it's a thorny depiction, partly because of how pervasive Hindutva is. Patel clearly has good intentions but reclaiming Hindu mythology from Hindutva is an almost impossible task, one that ends up playing into the same game of claiming God's mission. And it's also clear the film was defanged slightly, as early trailers displayed a flag that matched the BJPs before being recolored for the final release. Even then, the film does not have an official release date in India. In all, it's potentially a good and approachable way to showcase India's contemporary issues to uninformed international audiences that does not hold up when dissected. (Read this terrific piece by Siddhant Adlahka for a better breakdown.)

Despite its slower start, "Monkey Man" ends up as a revenge thriller to remember. Its action is sharp and fluid, its music is raucous and delightful, and Yatana is a city I'd be eager to return to in another film. Even though Patel perhaps bites off more than he can chew with the film's political commentary, it's an exciting start for the actor's directing career, and hopefully a signal of more to come.