Friday, April 5, 2024


 by Rob DiCristino

In which Dev Patel goes ape. Sorry.

“Do you like John Wick?” asks a slimy merchant in a back room buried deep within the caverns of Mumbai. Kid (Dev Patel) responds with a laugh, perhaps never imagining that his quest for revenge would follow a similar trajectory to that of modern action cinema’s most celebrated hero. Of course, who doesn’t like John Wick? Chad Stahelski’s landmark film combined the ruminative noir of Nicholas Ray with the kinetic hand-to-hand combat sensibilities of the Raid and Bourne franchises and inspired a fundamental shift in our cultural expectations for the hero archetype. Though that series would grow more bombastic— and arguably more unwieldy — with each installment, Kid can certainly find common cause with 2014’s original, the story of an unassuming man forced to exact bloody revenge on a system of control that abuses its constituents for personal profit. But for as much as director, co-writer, and star Patel taps that well for Monkey Man, his high-octane revenge tale nonetheless fails to capture the grace and spirit of its forebears.
After spending years reeling from the murder of his mother (Adithi Kalkunte) at the hands of corrupt police chief Rana (Sikandar Kher), Kid prepares a roaring rampage against the powers-that-be. It begins on the streets, where he ekes out a meager existence as a bare-knuckle fighter in Tiger’s (Sharlto Copley) underground circuit. With the nationalistic Sovereign Party — in which Rana is a key lieutenant — poised to win the upcoming election, Kid befriends the charming Alphonso (Pitobash Tripathy) and negotiates his way into the employ of Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar), a madame who caters to India’s rich and powerful. With their help, Kid learns the ins and outs of high society, gradually ingratiating himself in their operation until the stage is set for a showdown with Rana. When his first attempt ends in embarrassing defeat, however, Kid goes on the run, training body and spirit with a group of outcasts led by Alpha (Vipin Sharma) and taking on the persona of “Hanuman,” a figure of ancient Hindu lore representing strength, inspiration, and resolve.

Director Patel comes loaded for bear with Monkey Man, a film teeming with the kind of sweat-and-blood excitement we love to see from a feature debut. Every foot of film has a frenzied vitality to it that suggests — shouts, announces, and insists, actually — that the Oscar-nominated actor has waited his entire life to get behind the camera. His frames feel composed on the run (Many apparently were, as production was often complicated by the COVID pandemic), and he speaks with a visual language that evokes the grit and grime of the hardscrabble avenues where his characters scrape out their lives. The one-percenters’ glitz and glamor is presented as cold and boorish, its oppression personified by an escort (Sobhita Dhulipala as Sita) who does nothing to hide her resentment and disgust. Patel leaves it all on the field, interspersing hazy flashbacks and racking focus between subjective points of view with the best of them. For all of Monkey Man’s faults, it is a vigorous demonstration of Patel’s filmmaking talent and enthusiasm for storytelling.
Those faults are crippling, however, as the same enthusiasm that propels Monkey Man’s visuals often completely derails its narrative. Patel’s insistence on giving a simple revenge story an ambitious socio-political context — the Sovereign Party’s spiritual wing is lead by the guru Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), whose xenophobia inspires the violence Kid seeks to avenge — muddles dramatic efforts that would have been better spent imbuing his characters with more texture. Though Kid eventually ascends to the highest levels of Queenie’s palatial skyscraper, Patel and co-writers John Collee and Paul Angunawela fail to seed his interior mission with any kind of matching escalation, which turns his second-act journey into spiritualism into a repetitive, unmotivated slog. Dozens of cinematic minutes are wasted flashing back to the same traumatic event that fails to unlock anything new in the characters, robbing the — admittedly brutal — action set pieces of any internal drama. As a result, what should be a heart-wrenching climax lands with a dull, hollow thud.
And so Monkey Man is ultimately an inadvertent but important reminder that bare-knuckle extravaganzas like John Wick and Oldboy aren’t memorable because their heroes are stoic, unfeeling terminators. They’re memorable because their heroes are textured and conflicted, because they react to new challenges and gain new strength as situations demand, developing into far different versions of themselves than they were at the start. Monkey Man, on the other hand, wants credit for that without putting in the work to earn it. It covers Wick’s song, we might say, without truly understanding the power of its melody. Still, it’s hard not to appreciate its ambition — the things it wants to say and be and feel and do — even if it leads to little else than a stale imitation of better works. If nothing else, Dev Patel now has a solid proof of concept under his belt, a resume film that is sure to give him new opportunities to further hone his already considerable talents. In this cinematic landscape, that should be more than enough.


  1. I've been following Dev Patel for a while, ever since i noticed him in the Newsroom. Always liked him, even if i didn't always cared for the thing he was in. I'm still curious about this. I'm sure as a first directorial effort, it's worth the look.

    Also, i have to say that John Wick's copycats bother me less than Pulp Fiction's copycats from back in the days