I doubt anyone who witnessed Dev Patel’s breakthrough roles in Skins (2007) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008) would have expected him to go on to become an action star. However, it isn’t that strange when you delve into his history, with Patel having quite the background in Taekwondo.

His filmography hasn’t really called for Patel to show off his martial arts skills, although the likes of The Last Airbender (2010) and Hotel Mumbai (2018) did have a fair share of action. With it looking unlikely he would be cast in a mainstream actioner, Patel has done the only logical thing and helmed his own martial arts movie and put himself in the lead.

With this he has brought us Monkey Man, a striking directorial debut that not only illustrates Patel’s talents behind the camera but cements his credentials as a bonafide action star. The only question is what has taken him so long?

As the film opens we are quickly introduced to Kid (Dev Patel) during an illegal boxing match in the Tiger’s Temple, an underground club for illegal fights. Sporting a monkey face mask, Kid ends up taking a beating. As it turns out, he has been paid to do so by shady fight coordinator Tiger (Sharlto Copley).

As the film progresses we find out that Kid has more on his mind than making money off fixed fights, with his main motivation being revenge. His main targets are corrupt Police Chief Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher) and Spiritual Leader Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), who we find out later were behind the massacre of Kid’s village as well as the murder of his mother.

Through some subterfuge, Kid is able to get a job in high class brothel Kings which Shakti and Singh both frequent. Working for brothel keeper Queenie Kapoor (Ashwini Kalsekar), Kid manages to integrate himself into the inner circle of the brothel and work his way up in order to enact his revenge. As expected, things don’t exactly go to plan, with Kid having to not only overcome those he’s fighting against but come to terms with his own trauma. 

Patel has created a film brimming with energy, with excellent performances, beautiful visuals and awesome action all combine to make Monkey Man one of the finest directorial debuts in years. What’s more impressive is the fact that Patel was able to create such a striking film on such a small budget, with Monkey Man costing the relatively low sum of $10 million.

Patel makes sure that every cent is on screen, overcoming many obstacles during production, with the advent of Covid causing serious disruptions. Many others may have thrown in the towel but clearly Monkey Man was a labor of love for Patel, which is evident in almost every frame of the film.

Opening with a brutal bare knuckle fight, Patel takes his time before treating us to another action set piece. Until then he introduces us to a host of characters and the turbulent world they inhabit.

As expected, Patel is the most prominent of these characters, with him putting in a performance that is as emotionally grueling as it is physically. The energy he shows behind the camera is capably matched by what he does in front of it, with Patel taking every opportunity to show off his physicality.

His role calls for him to be put through the ringer in several viscerally charged action scenes, the most memorable of these being around the midway point where Patel’s Kid attempts to assassinate Rana Singh. Let’s just say that it doesn’t go exactly to plan, with Kid having to face off against a small army of gangsters.

What I especially appreciated by this set piece is that Kid isn’t a well experienced fighter, with him being much more of a brawler. It isn’t until later in the film he improves his skills and becomes a force to be reckoned with. Here he survives by sheer determination and takes as much punishment as he gives out. The bathroom brawl that sets off this particular action sequence is as brutal as it is desperate, with Kid being way out of his depth.

Fight choreographer Brahim Chab does an excellent job in differentiating the action. The latter fights smartly show how Kid has developed as a fighter, taking down an assortment of opponents with ease, the opposite of his earlier skirmishes. It’s great to see Chab having the opportunity to show off his skills on such a high profile movie.

A member of the Jackie Chan Stunt Team, Chab has been consistently working as both a stunt performer as well as an actor. Martial arts fans may remember him from the likes of Pound of Flesh (2015) or the more recent Ganapath: Hero is Born (2023) where he assisted with the fight choreography. He has excelled himself here, with Monkey Man being a perfect calling card for his talents. Hopefully this leads to higher profile work for him.

Outside of the fighting, the supporting cast all put in memorable turns, even if some have more to work with than others. Pitobash’s Alphonso at first comes across as sleazy but manages to garner sympathy from the audience. Sobhita Dhulipala’s Sita initially seems like she will be a love interest for Kid but thankfully the film didn’t go down this route.

Then there’s the villains. Sikandar Kher’s Rana Singh is the type of villain you love to hate, with his towering presence making him seem unstoppable when going against Patel’s Kid. Ashwini Kalsekar is almost as bad, with her Queenie Kapoor shouting out a fair amount of abuse, so much in fact that you will be just hoping she gets her comeuppance. The veteran actress seems to revel in playing someone so venomous.

Giving the film a bit of star power is Patel’s Chappie (2015) co-star Sharlto Copley. Playing unscrupulous fight promoter Tiger. He’s only in a handful of scenes but imbues his character with a great deal of humor and personality.

Behind the camera, Patel perfectly captures the vibrancy of India, which made it all the more surprising (at least to me) that the film was shot elsewhere. Initially planning to film in India, Patel instead decided on an alternative location to film in, opting for a small island in Batam, Indonesia. Patel, along with cinematographer Sharone Meir do fine work covering for the fact this isn’t really India, with the locales feeling suitably authentic. Obviously someone native to the region may easily tell the difference, but this viewer was certainly fooled. Patel has stated in interviews that he wanted to infuse his action film with some culture, and he has certainly pulled this off with aplomb.

The script by Patel, Paul Angunawela and John Collee may initially seem like a straightforward revenge story, but they smartly turn conventions on their head by including political commentary, satire and comparisons with the mythological story of half-monkey, half-human God Hanuman. The inclusion of characters from the Hijra Community also set Monkey Man apart from the norm and are just one of many elements that make this film unique from other seemingly similar actioners.

My review wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention the soundtrack. Patel’s incorporation of popular pop songs during the action works extremely well, giving the film the right mood during those scenes, with songs ranging from The Police’s Roxanne to Boney M’s Rivers of Babylon. Jed Kurzel’s score also works as a fine accompaniment to the on screen action, with it harkening back to the great action films of the 80’s. I swear at one point I thought it was going to break into the Top Gun (1986) soundtrack.

I can’t recommend Monkey Man highly enough. I was already looking forward to the film and it more than exceeded my expectations. With several disappointing actioners already this year, I was glad that this was one that more than lived up to its promise. I look forward to seeing how Patel follows Monkey Man up. Hopefully its further work in the action genre, but even if not I will still look on with interest.

Plot: 4/5
Acting: 5/5
Action: 4/5
Overall: 4.3/5


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.