“Monkey Man” Is Bloody, Joyful Catharsis

Violent men are nothing new to cinema. Since the silver screen’s earliest outings, we’ve watched male characters punch, smash, and explode their way through films in the name of an interchangeable goal. From pirates and soldiers to mobsters and superheroes, the action genre has long rested on the shoulders of strong men who settle their problems with their fists. While certainly fun to watch, there’s often a hollowness to this repetitive violence – an inevitability that there will always be another impossible mission or malevolent boss to battle. At first glance, Monkey Man looks to be a continuation of this pattern with a masked avenger challenging a corrupt entourage. But Dev Patel’s story of righteous revenge feels like something more. Filled with joyful violence and almost gleeful action, Monkey Man is a blood-soaked journey to redemption and a call to arms for those the world has left behind. 

This stylish action thriller begins on a quiet note. An unnamed mother tells her son the legend of Hanuman, a Hindu god with the face of a monkey said to combine heroic strength with compassionate devotion. Fast-forwarding several decades, we find the Kid (Patel) has adopted this persona in adulthood. Wearing a gorilla mask, he spends his evenings throwing seedy prize fights and building a villainous reputation while struggling to survive in abject poverty. But this violence serves a loftier goal. The Kid is harboring a bitter grudge against Rana (Sikandar Kher), the violent right hand man of a corrupt religious leader. As he climbs the social ladder to close in on his target, the Kid discovers he is not alone. Society’s forgotten also hope to fight their way out of an oppressive ecosystem built on their backs. They may appear meek, but they’re laying in wait for a tiny spark to ignite their own rage. 

While not exactly a bait and switch, Monkey Man reels us in with spectacular action sequences that hide a poignant message. We each are all capable of fighting if we just have the courage to step into the ring. Co-written and directed by Patel, the film has an intimate quality that not only endears us to a stoic character, but invites us to see ourselves in his place. The camera sweeps and turns, gliding and jolting us through the Kid’s world as he is thrown around by powerful enemies. We feel the impact of his pain, but also the rewards of his endurance as he keeps getting back again and again. Multiple action sequences are simply astonishing with intimate violence and action destined to push the genre forward. We veer through catastrophic near misses, heart-wrenching blows, and fist-pumping kills as the Kid uses his environment to defend himself against the hordes of faceless warriors protecting the corrupt men at the top.

Patel takes us on a thrilling ride with sweeping chases and rapidly moving sequences that careen through dirty streets and VIP rooms alike. Pitch-perfect needle drops give the film a propulsive vibe that allows us to sit back and surrender to the turbulent catharsis. Producer Jordan Peele’s influence can be felt in this intimate story exploding modern social structures, but Monkey Man feels like a singular vision. Patel’s passion for the story can be felt in every frame infusing sequences of shocking destruction with compassion and heart. It’s a spectacular directorial debut combined with an impressive performance onscreen as well. The veteran actor stuns in a mostly physical role, transmitting sorrow, rage, gratitude, and fear with his soulful eyes while blowing our minds with his powerful fists. It’s a tour-de-force performance on both sides of the camera and an explosive entry into the directorial realm. 

Patel incorporates elements of Hindu culture in a timely exploration of religious oppression. Set in a fictionalized version of Mumbai, the poor are invisible, living in crowded tenements in clear view of lavish buildings and casinos. The Kid navigates both of these worlds, seeming to immerse himself in these disparate environments. He is everyone and no one, demanding his enemies know his name while telling us very little about his own past. This vagueness allows us adopt his cause, expanding our empathy and challenging us to join the fight. Patel name checks John Wick then moves on to do his own thing. This is not a man on a quest for singular revenge, but a crusader fighting for a better world. Monkey Man exists as the tip of a powerful spear, igniting a spark that could tear down a corrupt world two fists at a time.

Jenn Adams is a writer, podcaster, and film critic from Nashville, TN. Find her social media nonsense @jennferatu.