New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

New York University's independent student newspaper, established in 1973.

Washington Square News

Review: ‘Monkey Man’ powerfully reinvents the underdog action film

Dev Patel’s groundbreaking directorial debut breathes new life into the action genre through gruesome fight scenes, Hindu folklore and social commentary.
“Monkey Man” directed by Dev Patel, released in theaters on April 5, 2024. (Courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The Dev Patel drought has finally come to an end — the British actor booms back into the scene with his debut feature, “Monkey Man.” The Jordan Peele-produced film is a harrowing story of revenge and resistance, reinventing the action genre and cementing Patel as a director, writer and action star to be reckoned with. Patel’s ambitions were high, and he delivered a narrative that seamlessly weaves together the best parts of action films with Indian mythology and socio-political commentary. 

Set in the fictional Indian city of Yatana, audiences meet Kid (Dev Patel), a young man who gets beaten up in an underground fight club for money as he wears a monkey mask. Following years of suppressed rage stemming from childhood, he finds a way to infiltrate the city’s elite and take revenge on those who wreaked havoc on his life as well as violently displaced religious and gender minorities. 

Patel cited both John Wick and Bruce Lee as influences for the film — and it’s clear. He also praises Bollywood mogul Shah Rukh Khan as an early inspiration. What Patel does differently from his predecessors is infusing the narrative with mythological allegories, social commentary and gripping narrative devices that restore the excitement of a genre that often feels flat and repetitive. “Monkey Man” is unlike any other action film, establishing a new standard for what action films could and should be. 

Not a single second of “Monkey Man” lets the audience’s attention wander. The action sequences throughout the film somehow seem perfectly and meticulously choreographed yet simultaneously fluid and improvisational, a quality that can be attributed to the many challenges faced in production. Each scene is unpredictable in its brutality, and it’s hard to have this effect on an audience in an often-stale genre — yet, Patel has done it. 

Patel further refurbishes the genre through the use of Indian music throughout the film’s fight sequences. One of the most satisfying scenes portrays Kid training to fight to the beat of a tabla, played by Grammy-winning musician Zakir Hussain. Incorporating this classical percussion instrument is Patel’s way of putting an Indian spin on the beloved training montage characteristic of action films. 

It’s clear Patel is ambitious in his attempts at social commentary. Themes of police brutality, political corruption and religious conflict are woven together through the allegory of Hanuman, the monkey god who protects people, fights evil kings and loses faith in himself along the way. Patel’s character makes it his prerogative to take revenge not only for himself and the hardships of his past, but also for the marginalized and the voiceless in contemporary Indian society. In the film, Kid is taken in by a temple that serves as a sanctuary for transgender people who face consistent discrimination in Indian society. There are also stark contrasts between the spaces that the Indian elite occupy versus the squalid poverty of the streets. “Monkey Man” is a story of resistance where India’s impoverished outcasts fight back against the socio-political and religious systems that oppress them. 

The importance of this film cannot be understated. As an Indian-American, I was dazzled and overwhelmed by the portrayal of the images, stories and sounds I’ve grown up with figured into a mainstream action film. Patel managed to infuse Indian culture into this story in such an artful and profoundly beautiful way that makes me incredibly excited for the direction of the film industry. While the story may be more impactful to those more aware of political tensions in India, the screenplay was crafted with a detail-oriented meticulousness that ensures enough context to be emotionally moved by the film and its many narrative elements. I hope what Patel accomplished inspires future generations of South Asians in film to be ambitious, take risks and breathe as much heart and passion into their stories as he did with “Monkey Man.”

Contact Lulu Chatterjee at [email protected].

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