Monkey Man (2024) Review: Dev Patel’s Directorial Debut is a Messy But Visceral Revenge-Themed Action Thriller

I have been looking forward to Monkey Man ever since the first trailer back in January wowed me with its kinetic visuals reminiscent of The Raid and John Wick. Then came the world premiere at SXSW last month, where the movie was greeted with overwhelmingly positive responses.

Frankly, it’s hard to believe Dev Patel, the talented British actor best known for the Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire and other notable films such as Lion and The Green Knight, would choose an action genre for his directorial debut. Because he strikes me more as a dramatic actor than an action hero.

But apparently. Patel turns out to be a self-professed action fan since his younger days watching the likes of Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. Monkey Man finally opens the doors for him to play the dream role he’s been looking for and even pulls off multiple duties as a co-writer and co-producer in addition to directing the movie.

Interestingly, Patel initially gave the directing job to Neill Blomkamp, where the former starred in the underrated 2015 dystopian sci-fi Chappie. Blomkamp reportedly rejected his offer since he’s not familiar with Indian culture which is integral to the overall storytelling in Monkey Man.

Now that I finally watched the movie in its entirety, I have to say Monkey Man isn’t as great as I expected it to be. It doesn’t reach the creative heights of The Raid or John Wick but remains decent enough for an action genre. The story is more of a standard-issue revenge theme steeped in the aforementioned culture inspired by the epic Sanskrit poem of Ramayana, specifically Hanuman. This Hindu monkey deity symbolises the power of courage and strength, which reflects Patel’s nameless character here. But Patel the director isn’t interested in turning his own acting role into a superhero of sorts since the movie is leaning more on the down-and-dirty style and tone.

At the beginning of the movie, Patel’s character is like a reckless and inexperienced young guy with a thirst for vengeance. We learn through fragmented moments of flashbacks now and then about how he vividly remembers his mother’s (Adithi Kalkunte) brutal murder. There’s a village fire and the corrupted police chief, Rana Singh (Sikander Kher) responsible for killing her mother. He made his living donning a gorilla mask and throwing fights for Tiger’s (Sharlto Copley) underground ring.

Sikander Kher as Chief Rana Singh in "Monkey Man" (2024)

One day, Patel’s character manages to make his way into the elite club run by a foul-mouthed manager Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar) looking for a job. He eventually gets it by working as a dishwasher. From here, we learn his name is “Bobby”. He has been targeting the club since it happens to be frequented by powerful figures in the fictional Indian city of Yatana and one of them is Rana. To climb his way up to the V.I.P. room where all the power players love to hang out, he needs a promotion and by doing so, he befriends one of Queenie’s trusted employees, Alphonso (Pitobash).

Patel takes his time getting to the all-hell-breaks-loose revenge part and when it finally arrives, the action is as chaotic as they get. In other words, we have lots of whip pans, a jittery handheld cam and Patel’s penchant for close-up shots. The latter tends to get annoying and he even goes as far as incorporating them a lot in the non-action scenes. The fights are messy and at times, incomprehensible but it’s hard to deny the sheer energy that Patel brings to the table. There’s a nighttime car chase scene that fares the worst. All sound and fury and again, more close-ups as if Patel is emulating Matt Reeves’s highway chase sequence in The Batman (no prize for guessing that the latter did a better job).

The second act of the movie is admittedly patchy in places, especially during a long stretch revolving around Bobby’s recuperation from a serious injury. The symbolic pretension of Indian mythology and culture does the heavy lifting here. Too bad it’s all window-dressing that doesn’t delve deeper beyond its surface-level storytelling. Not to mention the flashback-heavy moments grow repetitive.

Jed Kurzel’s pulsating score complements well with the hyperkinetic action mayhem and the go-for-broke third act is uncompromisingly brutal and violent. The only missed opportunity during the climactic finale is how I wish Patel’s character would don the gorilla mask while fighting all his way to the top of the club building. As for Patel the actor, he excels in his engaging performance playing a vengeful character. Pitobash brings much-needed comic relief to his sidekick role as Alphonso while Sharlto Copley nails the sleazy fight promoter/ring announcer part as Tiger and Sikander Kher does a good job playing the vile antagonist of a police chief.