Monkey Man Packs a Wild Punch

With a breakneck pace, Dev Patel’s directorial debut, Monkey Man, delivers on its bloody, brutal promise: a John Wick film in Mumbai that attempts to reclaim Hindu mythology for the underclasses of Indian society.

Dev Patel in Monkey Man. (Universal Pictures, 2024)

Monkey Man is much more interesting than the John Wick knockoff its trailer promised us. For one thing, that embarrassing voice-over line spoken by protagonist Dev Patel (“Every day I’ve prayed for a way to protect the weak”) is never actually spoken in the film — or if it was, I blocked it out.

If you’re an action fan headed to the theater with a certain amount of trepidation, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by Monkey Man, the directorial debut of its star, Dev Patel. And if you’re not an action fan, you’re reading the wrong review. Isn’t there some art film or prestige TV series on Max you should be watching right now?

Monkey Man is about a skinny, downtrodden nonentity called Kid, played by Patel, who fights in a sleazy underground boxing den called Tiger’s Temple. He does so as a despised character called Monkey Man, wearing a simian mask to protect his identity. Tiger is the fiercely grinning Afrikaner owner/impresario of the club — played by the great Sharlto Copley of District 9 fame — and he pays Kid to get beat up as gorily as possible, losing to more popular fighters for the entertainment of the bloodthirsty mobs who patronize his place.

In flashbacks to his idyllic childhood in a forest village, we see that Kid was raised to identify with the mythical underdog Hanuman — aka Monkey Man, aka the demon-fighting “Monkey King” of the Ramayana — by listening to the stories told by his doting mother, Neela (Adithi Kalkunte). There are wonderfully expressive illustrations of Hanuman’s story in the picture book mother and son read together, especially the expressions of simian agony when Hanuman is punished by the gods for his overreaching after he tries to snag the shiniest mango in a tall tree and ends up grabbing the sun and eating it instead. Images of Hanuman’s outcry of pain will be intercut with Kid/Monkey Man’s later trials.

Kid’s childhood ends early when a supposedly spiritual figure gaining political power, the yogi Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), is seeking property for industrial development and his own profit, and he sends the corrupt chief of police, Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher), to force the villagers off their land. This is a reference to the current Indian government’s attempts to evict Muslims and indigenous peoples in what is widely viewed as a corporate land grab. In the massacre-by-cops that follows, Rana murders Neela and burns her body, and Kid witnesses her death from the hiding place where she placed him.

In his quest for vengeance against Rana, Kid manages to get himself hired at a luxurious brothel and nightclub Rana frequents called Kings, which is run by hard-bitten sex trafficker Queenie Kapoor (Ashwini Kalsekar). Taking the lowliest janitor’s role and naming himself Bobby after the “Bobby’s Bleach” cleaning products he uses, Kid’s plot to crash the stronghold of the city’s elite includes buying a gun and befriending a homeless street dog that he trains to get the gun past security. He also becomes pals with a small-time operator named Alphonso (Pitobash Tripathy) who works for the local gangsters as well as Queenie. Kid uses his knowledge of the crooked betting at Tiger’s Temple to get Alphonso some easy winnings when Monkey Man takes one of his usual dives. In exchange, Alphonso gets Kid promoted to waiter on the upper floors of the club where Rana hangs out.

All of this plot is conveyed rapid-fire, as a frenetic pace is set that keeps time with the hustling urban world Kid lives in, with its brutal divisions between the lives of the rich minority and the desperately poor majority. One breathless montage shows a thief on a scooter stealing the purse of a rude rich woman at an outdoor cafe, then chases the progress of the purse as it’s conveyed hand to hand through rough side streets and twisting alleys till it’s finally delivered to Kid.

There are some who might object to this reckless pace, but not me. Ever since the 1980s–’90s heyday of the Hong Kong martial arts film, I’ve been pining for a return to speedy movies. We’re in such a terrible era of the elephantine film, proudly big and lumbering.

The first wild, inventive, multiphase fight scene starts in the men’s bathroom of Kings, when Kid confronts Rana. It ends up spilling out into the club/brothel, then onto the streets, then into another, much more low-end brothel guarded by a skinny but scary ax-wielding enforcer who says with eloquent indignation, “You led the cops to my place? How dare you.”

Then there’s a breakneck chase scene in Alphonso’s tuk-tuk and a crash that knocks out Kid at last. But he wakes up as he’s being conveyed in a prison ambulance, and the fight is on again.

In the interests of full disclosure, it should be noted that Monkey Man does indeed reference the John Wick films many times, which becomes very obvious in the exuberant, protracted fight scenes. In the last one, Dev Patel is wearing the black John Wick suit, not to mention the patented John Wick martial arts moves throughout. But even before the fighting starts, there’s the dog-friend, always a feature in John Wick films. Though Dev Patel, gym-ripped as he is, still has absurdly long, gangly arms and legs, and looks hilarious when he fights silhouetted against a lit-up red wall.

Monkey Man announces its John-Wick-in-Mumbai intentions early on, when Kid goes to buy the gun to kill Rana with and is offered what the seller claims is the same gun used by John Wick in the movies. Kid doesn’t buy that gun — note the insistence that ultimately, this movie will be different — but it’s a savvy and endearing genre film tribute for those of us who miss the character.

There’s a scene near the end of Monkey Man in which Dev Patel’s title character again meets his archenemy, Rana, whom he’d failed to kill in the earlier confrontation. It’s the climactic point of a long, lively battle that’s cleared Kings, ending up in a deserted room lit with pink light and decorated with big mirrored discs hanging from the ceiling that spin slowly and reflect the faces of the two antagonists. Monkey Man picks up a shoe somebody lost in the mayhem, a woman’s sparkly silver high heel. At that moment it becomes clear that Monkey Man intends to beat the chief of police to death with the shoe. “And I am so here for it,” I thought.

Monkey Man turns out to be a highly engaging movie with some opulent stylish flourishes that are impressive, considering that this is Dev Patel’s directorial debut. He tried to get Neill Blomkamp to direct it instead — Patel acted with Sharlto Copley in Blomkamp’s Chappie (2015) — but Blomkamp told Patel he clearly identified so strongly with the material, and had pictured the entire film so thoroughly, that he should direct it himself.

You might be inclined to think Patel got some help from director Jordan Peele, who’s also one of the producers of Monkey Man. But in fact, Peele came on board after the film was done, when it looked as if Netflix was getting cold feet about it and planning to dump it directly onto streaming. Peele wanted to guarantee Monkey Man got a proper theatrical release.

The word is that Netflix got anxious about certain resemblances between the evil religious leader Baba Shakti character aligned with a right-wing nationalist political figure, and the government of India’s current prime minister, Narendra Modi, who has presided over a resurgent Hindu nationalist turn away from secularism, including brutal crackdowns on dissent.

In Monkey Man, Patel seems to be trying to reclaim Hindu mythology from the Ramayana for the underclasses of Indian society. The character of Baba Shakti trades on high-sounding spiritual guff and claims to be working on behalf of the people while gaining ever more personal wealth and dangerously abusive political clout. He’s countered by the genuine and inclusive spiritual force of Alpha (Vipin Sharma), who lives among the marginalized transgender and intersex community, known as hijras or “India’s third gender.”

Their status in society was devalued by the colonizing influence of Victorian England, though hijras are still considered to have the power to bless or curse and frequently crash weddings and birth ceremonies. Many hijras are exploited by gurus who force them into begging or the sex trade. In Monkey Man, Alpha is represented as the rare protector figure, the keeper of the temple of Ardhanarishvara, a half-male, half-female divinity. Recognizing the badly injured Kid as a fellow outcast, Alpha allows him to live in the temple for an interlude of physical healing and spiritual rebirth that’s a cool variation on a sequence familiar to action film fans. This is the midway slowdown when the wounded hero finds sanctuary, rejuvenation, and a place to train at a higher level that will allow him to prevail against the forces of darkness.

And the hijras join Monkey Man in his final fight scene with a dressed-up wedding-crasher exuberance that’s very infectious.

It will be interesting to see how Monkey Man is received in India. Its release date there is set for April 19, but it hasn’t yet been vetted by censors, who may very well strip it of its more incendiary content, presuming it’s released at all. It’s certainly a volatile time to screen this film:

Notably, April 19 also marks the beginning of India’s six-week long general election, the road to which has already been paved with the jailing of the BJP’s political opponents and the alleged freezing of their funds as Modi seeks his third term in office. Should Monkey Man be released in the coming months, the timing could also result in increased scrutiny and heated sentiments, despite its muddled critique. Patel’s good intentions may be obscured by novice storytelling and last-minute studio measures, but at a time when Indian industries like Bollywood increasingly toe the party line, Monkey Man is buoyed by enough political gusto to still ruffle a few feathers.

And even a little left-wing political gusto, especially in the form of a fast-paced brawler like Monkey Man, is an exciting thing in these hard times.