Directed by: Dev Patel
Written by: Dev Patel, Paul Angunawela, John Collee
Starring: Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley, Pitobash, Sobhita Dhulipala, Sikandar Kher, Makarand Deshpande
Released: April 4, 2024
Grade: B+

Monkey Man

Dev Patel is doing quite well for himself.  He was a 17-year-old when he made his feature film debut as the lead in Danny Boyle’s Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire.  He was a 26-year-old when he earned his first Academy Award nomination for his excellent supporting performance in Garth Davis’s Lion.  Now, as a 33-year-old, he’s making his directorial and screenwriting debut with the action-thriller Monkey Man

The tradition with action flicks is to go with a simplistic, over-the-top “bad guy” intent on destroying the world, and a suave, charismatic hero who thwarts those plans.  In interviews promoting the film’s release, Patel talks about wanting to make something with more substance and grit.  He’s achieved just that.  It’s set in the fictitious Indian city of Yatana and shows a world where religion is used as the smokescreen to create an even wider gap between rich and poor.

It’s interesting to see a movie where the keynote villain is a popular spiritual figure, and the cons of organised religion are placed under the spotlight.  Makarand Deshpande plays Baba Shakti, a powerful man who promotes peace and understanding to his cult-like followers but behind closed doors, he uses the power of a corrupt media and police force to supress dissent amongst poorer folk and deepen his already bulging pockets.  I wish there was more insight into his background, rise and motivations, but he still makes for an intriguing adversary to root against.

The supporting players aren’t a huge focus as this is the Dev Patel show.  In addition to his work behind the camera, he steps into the shoes of the film’s protagonist – an unnamed orphaned man from the slums of India who seeks vengeance against those responsible for the death of his mother.  He appears in almost every scene and gives it everything with his passionate performance in terms of both emotion and physicality.  The fight sequences left me contorting in my seat with their brutal, jarring nature.  I’m surprised the film snuck through Australian censors with an MA rating (as opposed to R).

Monkey Man is a touch uneven in places.  It’s as if Patel wants to blend the intensity of a John Wick instalment (that character even gets a mention) with the reflective, visual imagery of a Terrence Malick movie.  The slow introduction (plot details are deliberately kept vague) and continual use of up-close, out-of-focus shots is a minor annoyance.  Still, the film hits its stride in the second half and culminates with a quick-paced, violent finale that ends without an unnecessary epilogue.

Originally intended to be a direct-to-streaming release for Netflix, renowned horror director Jordan Peele (Get Out, Nope) saw an early cut and, in coming on board as a producer, helped get Monkey Man in cinemas across the globe.  With the film tracking to earn roughly $20 million USD in its opening weekend in the US, Peele’s decision looks to be the right one!