movie reviews

REVIEW: In ‘Monkey Man,’ vengeance isn’t as sweet as it could be

Jason Tan Liwag

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

REVIEW: In ‘Monkey Man,’ vengeance isn’t as sweet as it could be

Monkey Man's Twitter

Dev Patel’s directorial debut is heavy-handed on classic violence but suffers from its political incongruence

Spoilers ahead.

I want Dev Patel to keep making movies. I recall seeing Slumdog Millionaire in grade school and being enamored by his handsomeness; the expressiveness in his eyes. Even then, Patel had the makings of a singular onscreen presence. In the 16 years since, he’s gotten close to greatness – moving from early career failures such as M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender to successes like John Madden’s The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Garth Davis’ Lion, and David Lowery’s The Green Knight. But like many people of color in the UK, filmmakers haven’t always known what to do with him or his talents.

Monkey Man holds out a promise to the audience – that Dev Patel the writer-director might be the only one capable of unlocking the greatness and the hotness of Dev Patel the actor. Inspired by childhood tales of Hanuman, a monkey-faced deity central to Hinduism who embodies strength and selfless dedication, Patel stars as Kid, a human punching bag in an underground fight club who seeks ways to enter the political underworld to avenge his mother’s death. 

Throughout its two-hour-long stretch, Monkey Man delivers most of its promises – an underdog narrative, seemingly improvised fights in the kitchen, hyperkinetic editing that vacillates between religious paintings and grisly imagery, even lingering shots of a shirtless and sweat-soaked Patel fighting for his life. But though it checks the genre boxes, why does Monkey Man feel so…empty?

The discomfort may come from how, within the first few frames, the historicopolitical limits of Monkey Man reveal themselves. While the past is fully colored, Yatana, the fictional city our protagonist, is depicted in the present day with the same yellow filter often used to color the Global South, evoking the smell of piss, smog, disease, and desperation. These filters continue throughout the film’s runtime – extending beyond the fight club into the streets, depicting Yatana and its people in perpetual grime and squalor. It’s purposeful in its depiction of social stratification, sure. But it’s the first sign that we are entering a first-world man’s caricature of the third world.

But much of it comes down to Kid as a character and the visual elements used to support his journey. It isn’t Patel’s first time starring in a film like Monkey Man. Michael Winterbottom was the first to see the action star in him, casting him as the ambiguous British hitman in The Wedding Guest (2018). A sexually charged and morally gray tale of border crossing, The Wedding Guest capitalizes on the audience’s expectation of empathy from Patel’s onscreen persona, half-hoping he’ll continue to do the right thing, making the film’s more cold-blooded moments more jarring. With its dark core and insistence on retribution, Monkey Man registers almost like a prequel to The Wedding Guest; the first blood drawn by would-be criminals before they turn into full-blown psychopaths.

Unlike The Wedding Guest, Patel doesn’t make Kid a cold-blooded killer. Instead, he asks us to discover along with him the fractals of his childhood responsible for his unresolved rage and how these are rooted in greater desires for justice. The underworld of Patel’s Monkey Man is ruled by Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), a man whose childhood poverty and deep religiosity in adulthood have made him popular within the predominantly Hindu population. But he merely co-opts the label of marginalization to manipulate those around him and fuel his ascent to power and his self-interests. Baba Shakti’s benevolent mask hides how he puppeteers many acts of violence – grabbing land, pillaging communities, etc. – which he performs through the city’s chief of police Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher) and the Sovereign Party, stand-ins for the right-wing Hindu Nationalist Party.

A quarter of the way into the film, Kid climbs up the upper echelons of Queenie Kapoor’s (Ashwini Kalsekar) empire and is suddenly in a position to avenge his village. But his trepidation gets the best of him, with Kid only narrowly escaping the police, finding refuge in Ardhanarishvara, a local temple filled with hijra, and their caretaker Alpha (Vipin Sharma). After a hallucinogenic trip enables him to confront his mother’s death, Kid transforms from a young boy trapped in a man’s body to an equalizer whose search for vengeance expands from the personal to the collective, aiming to avenge the hijra whom Baba Shakti’s political movement has displaced. 

When Kid finally decides to stop being a punching bag, the fight reveals he’s always had the strength to liberate himself and others. Though this expansion of retribution towards the liberation of others in the margins is a triumphant act of solidarity, there is discomfort in Patel’s decision to invoke religious iconography in his journey towards righteous vengeance, even if it’s an attempt at reclaiming the simian deity from Hindu extremists such as Baba Shakti.

I’m hardly the first to notice this. In film critic Siddhant Adlakha’s essay on the film for Time, he has articulated how the film’s political critique misses the point. In a crucial paragraph, he writes: “The movie’s villains only use Hinduism as a façade for violence and financial gain, rather than as a sincere fixture of their fanaticism. They represent Hindutva only in the abstract, echoing its power structures without its ideology. Kid, meanwhile, perhaps inadvertently, embodies it in both belief and action.” So when Kid later bleaches his monkey mask white, completing his metaphorical transformation into Hanuman, the editing pushes for feeling some glory that never seems to come.

This may be why the vengeance in Monkey Man never feels sweet, even when dealt in spades. Even the conclusion ends with a sigh of relief, with Kid succumbing to his wounds and feeling peaceful release; as if his violent tendencies are only channeled from his surroundings or borrowed from Hanuman himself. It’s never meant to be indulgent in the same way that, say, Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy asks us to delight in its twisted perversions.

The killings, considering their parallels to real-life violence still experienced in India, still have a weight that can be felt through the screen, even if one isn’t aware of such a sociopolitical struggle happening.

Still, there are glimmers of Patel’s greatness both as a director and an actor – sequences involving necks and knives where his black belt in taekwondo inspires both oohs, aahs, and eews; cuts where his eyes do the heavy lifting despite the crowd; long takes that feature a kind of imagination that’s been rearing to do this for a decade. Like Kid, the passion is there but the plan isn’t always tangible.

Patel never fully takes advantage of his charms, nor does he seem fully aware of his persona and how to play with it, subvert it. Though Monkey Man ends before the tale feels like it’s fully fleshed out, its existence proves that there’s an audience still willing to show up for Patel and his talents. And they will be seated for the next one too.


Dev Patel’s ‘Monkey Man’ is now in Philippine theaters nationwide.

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Avatar photo


Jason Tan Liwag

Jason Tan Liwag is an openly gay scientist, actor, and writer. As a film critic, he is an alumnus of the IFFR Young Critics Programme 2021, the FEFF Film Campus 2021, the Yamagata Film Criticism Workshop 2021, and the CINELAB Workshop 2020 and has served as a jury member for film festivals locally and internationally.