SXSW 2024: MONKEY MAN: Writer/Director/Producer/Star Dev Patel Remembers Who He Really Is


All of my life I’ve been a student of action cinema. It seems Dev Patel has been too. And the student is making a play to become the master.

Patel blew the roof off the historic Paramount Theater for the world premiere of his directorial debut Monkey Man at South By Southwest. Patel and producer Jordan Peele (Get Out, Nope) charmed the audience beforehand and the crowd was… vocal… in its love for Patel. In that intro for the film, Patel referenced his fandom not only of highly mainstream stars like Bruce Lee and Jet Li, but also Sammo Hung, Korean revenge films, and Indonesian masterpiece The Raid. He even threw in a mention of John Wick as his film shares a producer with that series in Basil Iwanyk. Those are the kind of homages and reference points that get an action aficionado’s pulse pounding. But did Patel deliver on those lofty goals?

Monkey Man is indeed an impressive calling card for Dev Patel: filmmaker, and Dev Patel: action star. The film is vibrant and energetic, feels highly auteur-driven, and in its third act it truly delivers on the promise of Patel’s influences. It’s also scrappy and messy and features that uniquely “first film” kind of energy where you can tell the filmmaker wanted to throw in EVERYTHING they’ve ever wanted to say just in case this is the only shot they ever get. 

Patel’s character, unnamed, but known as “The Kid” in the end credits, and also going by the made up name of “Bobby”, is driven by a desire for revenge as we see him scrape by on the streets of Mumbai. We’ll learn as the movie progresses what happened to him as a child to spark that drive for revenge, but that will be somewhat teased out over the runtime of Monkey Man. What’s the title all about? Well, the kid’s mother raised him in the Hindu tradition, teaching him prayers and the tale of the monkey god Hanuman. When he’s grown, our protagonist earns extra scratch in an underground fighting ring emceed by Sharlto Copley in which he throws fights and wears an identity concealing monkey mask. 

One of the best components of Monkey Man is that our lead is frankly a bit of a fuck up. The entire first act chronicles his attempts to become an assassin (a local police chief and a Hindu holy man on the verge of major political prominence are his targets) which go very poorly as he’s just essentially lost his way and operating on his own. In the second act the film isn’t quite as successful, but gives our Monkey Man a chance to make some familial and community connections which allow him to train up and “remember who you really are”. It’s the training montage sequence of the action movie and it taps into some of the cultural criticism of Indian society which Patel clearly has on his mind. He’ll bond with a woman trapped in sex work, he’ll be nursed back to health by an underground trans community, and the oppressed class will rise to draw some blood from the oppressive corrupt cops and gangster priests of their world. 

Patel’s influences are displayed clearly. Overall it’s a revenge film maybe even more than it is a pure action film. It’s angry, single-minded in its pursuit of vengeance, and in that way it perhaps feels most akin to Korean titles like A Bittersweet Life. With its middle sequence it pays homage to “training montages” like 36th Chamber of Shaolin. And in that final act (by far the film’s most successful and crowd pleasing), Patel pays direct homage to Bruce Lee’s Game Of Death and Gareth Edwards’ The Raid with a harrowing and spiritual journey up a skyscraper compound. All of those influences are exciting and the crowd seemed to be cheering and along for the ride. What makes the film special, though, is that Patel brings all of himself to this story, and doesn’t just rattle off references. Mumbai, as cliché as it may sound, is indeed a living, breathing, complex and labyrinthine character in Monkey Man. I have never had the privilege to travel to India but Patel’s depiction of it teems with humanity and faith and mystery in a way that isn’t “exoticising” but rather energizing. The broken power systems made him the scarred orphan that he is, but the underdogs and outcasts make him the righteous avenger he needs to become. It’s a personal action film driven solely by Patel’s unrelenting vision, and that level of scrappiness, even if it is coming from a beloved international super star, is charming and infectious.

Q&A with Dev Patel at the premiere of MONKEY MAN at @SXSW #filmtok #fyp #foryoupage #sxsw #cinema #devpatel #jordanpeele

♬ original sound –
Some mild spoilers from Dev Patel for the Bruce Lee / Game Of Death homage in Monkey Man’s finale

At SXSW 2023 I witnessed the world premiere of John Wick Chapter 4. I came away from that film declaring it an instant masterpiece; among the very best action films of any era, operating at a level of confidence and quality and determination that is almost unrivaled. Monkey Man isn’t that. It’s a swing from a star who wants to change the trajectory of his career and share a whole new skill set that his audience has never seen before. It sounds like production was absolute hell, with covid shutdowns, injuries, and threats of collapse at every turn. Monkey Man’s premiere, which drew a standing ovation for Patel afterwards, in which he was clearly emotional, marks a bit of a cinematic miracle in getting a hellish shoot to the finish line amidst seeming triumph. It’s scrappy and occasionally doesn’t all click together, but it’s a labor of love and passion and the underdog spirit of Monkey Man shines through to kick the ass of its audience. Monkey Man marks the arrival of a new era for Dev Patel and I’ll gladly go wherever he leads me cinematically from here on out.

And I’m Out.

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