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Dev Patel’s Monkey Man raises the standard for action cinema

Meadow Shen and Yvonne Wu
“Monkey Man” is truly an exceptional vision that has come to life and testimony to Dev Patel’s deserved distinction as both an actor and director.

Knuckles cracked and bloody, Dev Patel stares up menacingly at the audience from behind the frayed hairs of a monkey mask. In the renowned British actor’s directorial debut, “Monkey Man” is an adrenaline-infused tale of a penny-scraping ring fighter against a backdrop of an India barraged with brutal land disputes. His frenzied pursuit of vengeance leads him down a road of gory violence wreathed into rediscovery of his role as an underdog in a nation divided by discrimination.

Shot with a modest budget of $10 million, Patel managed to draw the blood of violently gripping fight scenes from a stone of restrictive COVID-19 regulations, his own bones broken on set and financial limitations — with more than one scene being shot on his iPhone. With “Monkey Man,” he reminds audiences of what the action genre can and should be. The unabashed goriness of the film complements the dark nature of its themes and adds substance to fight scenes that would otherwise have fallen repetitive. Series of visceral fights backed by South Asian music tastefully toe the line between action and thriller, and the age-old impersonality of CGI-dominated action sequences is thankfully replaced in this film with focuses on the protagonist’s elaborate stunt work. Alternating between sensational character-focused shots and swift flashes of a few frames per second, the remarkable camerawork is a perfect parallel to the main character’s troubled mind. 

Patel’s embodiment of the protagonist, Kid, is nothing short of breathtaking. A rare character-driven film in a genre saturated by plotless, gratuitous action, “Monkey Man” weaves an intricate story of a low-life fighter carrying palpable anger at the oppression of Indian villagers and the nation’s economic class disparities. His agony can be felt through the screen, with many shots being dedicated to his shaking hands and blood dripping slowly down his face. Yet, only faint threads of a character arc can be found in the film, and with much of the screen time focused on silent, theatrical shots of Patel, there is a noticeable lack of plot-enhancing dialogue and visible change in the character’s persona. Kid’s backstory is revealed only through sporadic flashbacks, and while its scattered nature can be construed as a source of confusion and lack of exploration, the flashbacks, in truth, represent Kid’s mental captivity by his trauma and how the loss of his mother has become inseparably woven into his adult life. 

Every frame of Patel’s interactions with supporting characters is imbued with meaning, and none is left without incredible depth regarding their role and belonging in the underbelly of the fictional city of Yatana. The inclusion and portrayal of the benevolence of the hijra community — transgender people who often live in kinship communities — deserves particular admiration. Frequently viewed with unfavorable stigma in India, the community is  illustrated with a beautifully positive and inspiring light in “Monkey Man,” an indication of the attentive thought laced into the film’s representation of Indian culture.

The film’s flashbacks begin with the story of Hanuman, the widely celebrated Hindu half-monkey, half-man deity. Reiterated throughout the film as Kid’s inspiration, the vivid, rousing representation of this deity along with the movie’s paramount motifs of political corruption and religious nationalism open the floor to a litany of questions about the film’s stance on India’s political and religious environment — questions they fail to answer. The dispossession of villagers’ land largely mirrors true land grabs by the Indian government, and the characters and actions of the antagonists offer notable parallels to the rise of Hindu nationalism. Yet, despite the film’s vehemently gory nature, it is hesitant to take a clear stance on India’s political issues, refusing to outright state the antagonists’ religious and political alignments.. “Monkey Man” does not offer any noticeable layered commentary, reducing what could be the premise for a genuine analysis of India’s complex political landscape to a simple “good guy, bad guy” trope. The script delivers impassioned lines about gender inequality and class discrimination, yet these are left to serve only as sources for the protagonist’s anger and not truly regarded as the pressing social issues they are. The film puts an excellent foot forward in presenting religious and sociopolitical issues in modern India to western audiences, yet its misstep is in not thoroughly participating in the discussions it opens.

“Monkey Man” is an impressive revival of a stale and complaisant Hollywood genre. Patel’s passion project excellently fuses a hauntingly beautiful portrait of his protagonist with fiercely riveting fight sequences — a proof of concept for the direction modern action should be taking. While lacking in a comprehensive exploration of political commentary, “Monkey Man” is truly an exceptional vision that has come to life and testimony to Patel’s deserved distinction as both an actor and director.

4.3/5 stars

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About the Contributor
Katie Chin
Katie Chin, Copy Editor
(she/her) Katie is a senior and one of the Copy Editors for the Epic. She is excited for her third year on staff, and some of her hobbies include baking, reading and listening to music. She also loves trying new food, sleeping too much and going to the beach.

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