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  • Nate Adams

'Monkey Man' review: Dev Patel goes bananas with explosive directorial debut

Courtesy of Universal


Dev Petel has come a long way since making waves in the Oscar winning smash “Slumdog Millionaire.” From dramatic turns in “Lion,” “The Green Knight,” to a whimsical performance in “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” the actor always enlivens whatever project he’s involved with (he’s even watchable in “The Last Airbender”). But none more so than his explosive directorial debut “Monkey Man,” which was thankfully salvaged from Netflix and now will be seen where it always belonged: on the big screen. 

Petel directed, co-wrote, and produced “Monkey Man,” a bloody revenge epic made in the vein of the Bollywood films he grew up watching with a little “John Wick” thrown in for good measure. Through it doesn’t always keep a steady momentum (especially during the second act where cultural exploration gives way for a tempo crushing backstory), “Monkey Man” still marks the emergence of an exciting new voice in the filmmaker medium, one that couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune moment when mainstream cinema could desperately use the injection. 

Propulsive as it is brooding with style, not to mention Petel peppers the film with an arsenal of sick needle drops, among them Rick Ross’ “Devil is a Lie,” “Monkey Man” aims for something gritter and more authentic than the entourage of “John Wick” imitators who have come in its wake (not that those movie’s aren’t fun, but substance is always nice). Trying to land somewhere in the ballpark of “Oldboy” with the kinetic friction of “Enter the Dragon,” “Monkey Men” finds Petel playing Kid, who we see in the opening moments fighting in a boxing ring with a gorilla mask and Sharlto Copley’s ring leader howling to the hungry onlookers. 

In the ring, Kid isn’t so much a heavyweight, but it fronts him enough cash so he can get closer to a pool of corrupt politicians and sex traffickers in the very exclusive King’s Club on the outskirts of town. We watch as he methodically edges his way into the private quarters, getting hired by Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar) as a dishwasher before climbing the ranks to serve in the VIP section. And it’s here where his main target, a military general named Rana (Sikandar Kher) enters the picture. The build-up to their first brawl is paced well and Petel keeps the camera balanced while fight/stunt choreographer Brahim Chab pulls out all the punches. Except Kid takes a beating and is left for dead. 

From there, “Monkey Men” settles into a stunted rhythm where he’s taken in by an underground community of displaced transgender women (lead by Vipin Sharma’s Alpha). It does allow the film to backtrack and shows us memories from Kid’s childhood, specifically when his mother was brutally murdered by Rana. We also get news clips regarding a forthcoming election involving a religious leader (Makarand Deshpande) who ordered Rana and his men burn Kid’s village to the ground. The real world metaphors and context within Hinduism might not always mesh with the hyper-violent action spectacle Petel is selling, but at least “Monkey Man” has more on its plate than just cracking skulls and taking names. 

And it does that exceptionally. Once we get through the simmering montage of Kid regaining his strength, and he begins unleashing those lethal hand-to-hand skills against Rana and his men, “Monkey Man” comes alive with boisterous intensity. During this wild third act that takes several crazy turns (some more believable than others), Petel gives the impression of a seasoned pro rather than an overwhelmed newcomer. Which is not an easy thing to do, and the energetic prowess and sense of control displayed should make everyone eager to see where he steps behind the camera next. 

Grade: B+ 

MONKEY MAN is now playing in theaters.


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