Monkey Man review: Dev Patel does it all in an India-set action thriller with shades of John Wick

Dev Patel has exited the James Bond rumour mill by showing us exactly the sort of action star he wants to be. He acts, writes, produces, and directs Monkey Man, a midnight thrill of a film – dark, violent, and sexy. It’s his directorial debut and, like many of the best first features, Monkey Man demonstrates a lifetime of cinephilia, offering a direct shout-out to recent hit John Wick, but tracing back, too, through the history of Indonesian, Korean, Indian, and Hong Kong action cinema (think The Raid, Oldboy, Koyla, and Enter the Dragon).

It begins with a simple story: Patel plays Kid, a young man with no name living in a fictional Indian city, seeking revenge against the man who murdered his mother. So, he pummels and stabs his way to the guilty party, chief of police Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher). And after that, he pummels and stabs his way to that guy’s boss, a religious leader with political ambitions, Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande).

Brahim Chab’s impressive fight choreography evens out the blunt-force brutality with a dash of morbid humour – Kid does some very nasty work with a knife in his mouth, while his chivalric attitude towards women reaches its apex when he deploys a cast-off high-heeled shoe to viciously beat one of the bad guys – now that’s what we call feminist allyship! Meanwhile, cinematographer Sharone Meir lends the city an intimacy and enriches the fights with a new electricity. Monkey Man is a film that relishes the details: milk poured delicately into a teacup; the grooves carved deep into Kid’s scarred hands.

Patel, who co-wrote the screenplay with John Collee and Paul Angunawela, has thoughtfully considered his place within the genre. He has smartly (and correctly) recognised his type as the philosopher-poet called reluctantly to violence, an energy embodied by Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze before him. He’s maybe even learnt a little from how beautifully David Lowery framed him in 2021’s mediaeval epic The Green Knight, repeating that same approach here – his profile caught in the light, a little curl falling softly on his forehead. His threat isn’t brawn but pure nerve.

Monkey Man, too, is also firmly rooted in the question of faith – how it can both empower the individual and be wielded as a weapon by the institution. Kid was raised on his mother’s stories of Hanuman the Monkey God, whose divine punishment eventually endowed him with immense power.

At first, Kid carries these stories as a burden, choosing to wear a monkey mask while throwing fights in an underground ring for the shady Tiger (Shartlo Copley). But eventually, he finds allies in the marginalised trans and intersex community, legally recognised in India as a “third gender”, who are specifically targeted by Baba Shakti’s fictionalised Hindu nationalist party that also drives farmers out of their homes to seize their land under the pretext that they’re holy sites. Alpha (Vipin Sharma) – a priestess for the deity Ardhanarishvara (a half-male, half-female composite of the god Shiva, creator and destroyer, and his consort Parvati) – opens Kid’s eyes to the community that faith can foster, its stories shared through art, puppetry, and music.

Kid does some very nasty work with a knife in his mouth (Universal Pictures)

Monkey Man, then, builds its gleeful genre play around a steely political heart. This made it of logical interest to producer Jordan Peele, who’s done the same in the horror space with Get Out, Us, and Nope. His company Monkeypaw Productions picked up the film, wrestling it away from a straight-to-streaming fate over at Netflix. It was a smart call. Monkey Man deserves to be a hit.

Dir: Dev Patel. Starring: Dev Patel, Sharlto Copley, Pitobash, Sobhita Dhulipala, Sikandar Kher, Vipin Sharma, Ashwini Kalsekar. Cert 18, 121 minutes

‘Monkey Man’ is in cinemas from 5 April