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'Monkey Man' review: Crunching action film doesn't quite land political critique

Dev Patel directs and stars in a film that highlights the hold of the far right on India today. The action has a lethal bite that's missing in the film's well-meaning politics

Dev Patel in 'Monkey Man'
Dev Patel in 'Monkey Man'

Dev Patel’s film starts with a mother telling her son the story of Hanuman and ends with a prayer to the monkey god. In between, there’s a lot more Hanuman, as well as references to Shiva, Parvati and Ram. The film’s antagonists appropriate Hinduism for their evil purposes. The protagonists are devout, steeped in mythology, true believers. It’s a neat enough formulation, yet one that marks Monkey Man out as a film about India that’s neither written nor directed by resident Indians. As anyone living here will tell you, it's fantasy to think you can out-flank the religious right. 

In his first film as director, Patel plays an unnamed brawler (credited as ‘Kid’) who wears a monkey mask and gets knocked around in underground prize fights. His only desire is to somehow get to corrupt chief of police Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher). In a series of flashbacks—each with a little more detail—we see that Rana was responsible for the death of his mother years ago. Monkey Man takes most of its cues from east Asian action cinema, but there might be a strand of Bollywood in its DNA. An intense young man haunted by memories of his parent’s demise, a murder glimpsed in hiding, a piece of jewellery on the killer’s person stuck in his head—these are images straight out of Zanjeer (1973).  

Kid finds an opening in a swanky club that offers drugs and women to the elite of Yatana, a fictitious Mumbai-like city. He’s befriended by drug-runner Alphonso (Pitobash), who shows him the ins and outs of the establishment, including where to find Rana. You can see the influence of the groundbreaking Thai martial arts film Ong-Bak. Kid is an underground boxer and originally from a village, just like Tony Jaa in the 2003 film; Pitobash fulfils a similar comic sidekick role to Mum Jokemok. Patel makes the debt concrete with a recreation of a famous moment from that film—a single lethal kick that shuts up a partisan crowd. 

Once it became known that Monkey Man had an embattled Hanuman, an escort named Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala), and a Hindu priest for a villain, it was all too clear it wasn’t going to play in Indian cinemas (officially, it's yet to be examined by the censor board). It seems unlikely any streaming platform here will pick it up either. Is the film as politically explosive as all this suggests? That depends of the degree of specificity you’re expecting. Certainly, the film is a cracked reflection of the country today. Everyone's gearing up for elections, with the right-leaning ‘Sovereign Party’, aided by the powerful godman Shakti Baba (Makarand Deshpande), expected to win. News reports show minorities being targeted. One montage ends with a shouted ‘Bharat mata ki jai’ accompanied by images of floggings and lynchings.

This is more than any Hindi film today would get away with. Yet, the political situation in Monkey Man (written by Patel, Paul Angunawela and John Collee) is only tangentially connected to its action. Kid and his mother have their land seized with the help of state authorities—not something unique to this moment in time. Muslims are shown on the news as victims of violence, but there are no Muslim characters in the film. Rana and Shakti Baba are archetypal Indian villains who could exist anytime in the cinema of the last 25 years (had Baba been a minister rather than an enabler, it might have been more pointed). 

You might say this is more political engagement than a pulpy action film need show. That’s probably true—and yet, having ventured onto this particular branch, I'd have liked it if the makers of Monkey Man had tested its strength. Consider the 2022 Tamil film Natchathiram Nagargiradhu. Its deux ex machina villain is a clean-cut upper-caste goon who turns up at a play by a liberal, intercaste, intersectional theatre troupe and proceeds to terrorize everyone, leaping about in simian fashion, attacking the players with a mace and setting fire to the stage. It’s difficult not to see this rampage as a warped Lanka dahan and the character as a manifestation of those ‘Angry Hanuman’ stickers that became so popular in the aughts. 

Despite its limitations, Monkey Man is a cracking action film. Patel, who’s trained in taekwondo, cuts a ripped, seething figure as he dispatches dozens of goons in his quest to reach final boss Rana (Kher enjoying himself). John Wick is name-checked, but the action, choreographed by Brahim Chab, is scuzzier and less fluent than the Keanu Reeves series. One 13-minute sequence takes in a savage bathroom brawl, a mad auto chase and a messy fight in a brothel. My favourite bit comes in a later sequence—the 30 odd seconds where Kid takes out a bunch of security guys in the kitchen, Sharone Meir’s camera swiveling and pirouetting to catch the action. 

Patel takes one wild swing. A battered Kid is taken in by a hijra commune, who heal and prepare him for future battles. For some reason, tabla maestro Zakir Husain is also hanging around. In the training montage that follows, Kid pummels the bag as Husain responds in time with taps of the tabla. It’s both endearing and faintly ridiculous. Imagine John Wick doing target practice as Itzhak Perlman plays in the corner. 

In 2008, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire propelled Patel to stardom and established a certain idea of modern urban India for western audiences. Monkey Man has the same frenetic style, but then so do a lot of recent Indian films. Patel has room to grow and figure how to make his set pieces pop; too many scenes are a blur of similar solid colours and frantic movements. But he clearly has affection for the genre, and concerns about his ancestral country. Monkey Man doesn’t have as much to say about India as one might have hoped. But the pointedness of its anger is unmistakable. 






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