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MONKEY MAN: Dev Patel's Directorial Debut Delivers Grit, Heart, and a Vengeful Thrill Ride

A man looks at someone off camera with a determined look in his face
Image Courtesy of Universal

By Amylou Ahava

Dev Patel swings into the director's chair with MONKEY MAN, a gritty tale of vengeance set in the heart of Mumbai's underground. Patel, known for his powerful performances, shines behind and in front of the camera in this politically charged action thriller.

The film follows Kid (who also goes as Bobby), an underground boxer with a tragic past, as he navigates the seedy world of illegal fighting, corrupt cops, and an oppressive caste system to uncover the truth behind his mother's murder.

As a director, Patel proves his prowess, delivering a visually stunning and emotionally gripping narrative. However, MONKEY MAN is more than just a revenge flick; it is a story about storytelling itself.

With its world premiere at 2024 SXSW, MONKEY MAN garnered (a much-deserved) standing ovation from the audience. Produced by Jordan Peele's Monkeypaw Productions, the film provided a thrilling ride from start to finish. As Patel's first foray into directing, MONKEY MAN is a testament to his talent and dedication to telling an exciting and heartfelt story.

Hanuman (the half-monkey, half-human deity of Hinduism) woke up one day and felt a craving for something delicious. He did not want any of the food that was offered to him or was readily available on the ground. Instead, he set his sights on one of the most glorious pieces of fruit he had ever seen. A mango hung high in the sky and seemed perfect and delicious; he could not resist climbing up to taste it. However, once Hanuman reached the coveted piece of fruit and consumed it, he realized too late that he had actually swallowed the sun! The Gods were unhappy with Hanuman’s actions and summoned him to decide his punishment…

The story of Hanuman serves as the inspiration for the main character’s motivation but also stands as the inspiration for the film's entire plot. The movie explores Kid's deep bond with his mother, whose teachings about Hanuman and the importance of standing up against injustice motivate him to seek vengeance.

Kid's relationship with his mother is central to the story, shaping his identity and driving his actions throughout the film. As Kid navigates the dangerous underworld of Mumbai, he is guided by memories of his mother's love and wisdom and the stories she told him, making his quest for justice a profoundly personal and emotional journey. Patel’s character starts in seedy, sweaty underground boxing rings and rises through the system until he is in the VIP room high above the impoverished streets to bring justice to his mother.

As Kid works his way into the inner circle of corruption and gets closer to this intended target, he takes on a new identity. He not only sheds his boxing attire and tries to hide the remnants of his last fight but also takes on a new name. He introduces himself as Bobby, which he procured from Bobby’s Bleach, the brand of cleaning products he uses in his new kitchen job. Interestingly, he names himself after the bleach because the chemical represents the lower class and how they must all work for a living. However, the bleach also destroys and removes filth (which is precisely what he plans to do).

In MONKEY MAN, the fight scenes are a visceral experience that immerses the audience in the gritty world of underground combat. Dev Patel's portrayal of Kid brings a raw physicality to the fights and makes each punch, kick, and bite feel impactful and intense. The choreography is realistic and adds to the brutality of the scenes. But what really sets these fights apart is their use of unconventional weapons and settings, all of which add a street-fight feel to the action.

From an axe fight in a brothel to bringing makeshift bottle rockets to a gunfight, Kid uses everything at his disposal to survive in this dangerous world. Patel is also really not afraid to get dirty. And by dirty, I don’t just mean dirty fighting and backstabbing, but a more literal version of dirty, as we also see filth and excrement coming into play.

The frenetic energy of the fight scenes (with quick cuts and close-ups) makes the action immersive as we move along with the fighters. MONKEY MAN showcases Patel's talent not just as an actor but also as a director, as he crafts fight scenes that are both thrilling and creative.

While on the surface, MONKEY MAN appears as an action-filled revenge plot; there is quite a bit of heart behind the characters and their motivation. In particular, Patel points a sympathetic eye towards the art of storytelling and the importance of the storyteller. Throughout the film, various mediums are used to tell stories. The picture book from Kid’s youth, a puppet show, drums, and the intricate patchwork of scars covering the protagonist’s hands.

These storytelling methods add depth to the narrative and emphasize the power of storytelling in shaping Kid's identity and driving his actions. Without the stories of his mother echoing in his ears, Kid would not continue his path. They remind him of his identity, origin, and why he fights. In this way, the storyteller becomes crucial in passing along information and preserving cultural heritage.

In his directorial debut, MONKEY MAN, Dev Patel proves himself a talented actor and a masterful storyteller. His ability to blend gritty action with heartfelt storytelling creates a compelling narrative that resonates strongly with the audience. As we witness Patel's directorial skill in MONKEY MAN, we cannot help but look forward to more of his works in the future. His unique perspective and storytelling style promise to deliver more captivating and thought-provoking films ahead.


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