‘Monkey Man’ is a triumph of filmmaking.

And this is before you even consider the veritable “filmmaking hell” that director, writer, star and, by all accounts, glutton-for-punishment-in-order-to-realise-his-vision Dev Patel had to go through to get the film made.

The short version is; Patel got initial funding from Netflix, by the time they were ready to shoot the pandemic hit, so shooting had to take place in a bubble on an island which meant they had to forego their locations, Patel then broke his hand on the first day of shooting, the filmmakers basically troubleshot challenges on the fly every day of the shoot, they completed the film and showed it to Netflix, Netflix then promptly shelved it until Jordan Peele—of ‘Get Out’ (2017)—and Universal eventually bought ‘Monkey Man’ from Netflix and decided on a worldwide cinematic release.

With ‘Monkey Man’ Dev Patel has surely done his 12-year-old self proud—not to take anything away from the now 33-year-old self, who should feel proud and vindicated for every challenge he faced in getting this film to the screen.

Watching ‘Monkey Man’, on one level, feels like watching the biography of Patel as a storyteller and filmmaker. You can feel the grit, and grime, inspiration from the revenge flicks of yore—the rite of passage of many a young film lover.

Yet that is not the only inspiration here.

This story wouldn’t feel out of place in a graphic novel—the actioneering, the colour palette and ambience, the progression of the antagonist, the unique introduction of supporting characters, all could easily have come from the adaptation of an acclaimed graphic novel.

And while Bollywood has its share of revenge movie tropes, Patel both leans in to them and subverts them in equal measure, in a manner that seems to elevate his story.

Even as Patel’s ‘Bobby’ is easily on screen for 95 percent of the runtime, there aren’t really any blink-and-you-miss cameos here. You might initially think that Pitobash’s ‘Alphonso’ is the comic relief, but there’s more to his relief. Sobhita Dhulipala as ‘Sita’ subtly project her circumstance in every frame. Vipin Sharma and Sharlto Copley obviously got the memo—with electric performances which are polar opposites working sublimely well within the context of story. Zakir Hussain didn’t have to show up, but he does, and is far from wasted as he adds to Patel’s unique spin on the ‘montage sequence’.

Trailer for ‘Monkey Man’ © 2024 Universal Pictures

Patel, as the lead actor, brings the requisite pathos and urgency to the role. There isn’t an iota of director ego in his performance (more on director Patel in a moment). We have seen this character before a million times. On paper. But on screen, while comparisons feel reductive, Patel’s ‘Monkey Man’ is no less invigorating than ‘Mr. Wick‘ or ‘Logan‘ for that matter. Patel is “jacked” to the level where, in an alternative universe, he most certainly is a brown Wolverine — don’t get me wrong, he’s not Jackman jacked, but the ferocity and intensity, inclusive of the popping veins, would possibly make him an increasingly viable candidate.

One can nitpick Patel’s performance as a first time director—if the goal is perfection under ideal circumstances. ‘Monkey Man’ isn’t without its flaws. Some may even consider the film fairly flawed. But what Patel has delivered is thumpingly brilliant especially given all the obstacles he had to navigate. And navigate them he has, while delivering an admirable and memorable directorial debut. Through it all, the economy with which Patel conveys the connections between characters that surrounds his ‘Bobby’ should be the envy of any modern director. And while he frames ‘Monkey Man’ as a simple revenge flick, he also passes commentary on the equity, or lack thereof, of our surroundings— as politics, power, and poverty form the ever-present backdrop of his world.

Directed by Dev Patel, from a screenplay by Patel, Paul Angunawela, and John Collee based on a story by Dev Patel; ‘Monkey Man’ is surprisingly mature and entertaining filmmaking which, thanks to its director and star, is bigger than the sum of its parts.