For decades in movies, we had people punching, kicking, shooting, stabbing, exploding, and otherwise dismembering legions of bad guys. The 1970s gave us Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, and Charles Bronson. The 1980s gave us Arnold Schzwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, and Bruce Willis. The 1990s gave us Wesley Snipes, Will Smith, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. The 2000s gave us Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, and Jason Statham.

Action movies were very much a thing! I say “were,” because in the tail end of the 2000s, it seems that in large part superhero movies replaced action movies. That’s not to say they no longer exist. Tom Cruise’s career has transitioned into action, along with Keanu Reeves. Scott Adkins, Statham, and Donnie Yen are some of the bigger names that reinvigorated direct-to-streaming/video action, a genre that was previously known for cheap garbage populated by has-beens like Steven Seagal.

I think action movies are in the midst of a comeback, and I think they might eclipse superhero movies.* I also think the genre is primed to look somewhat different than it has been in the past. Case in point is Dev Patel’s directorial debut and passion project Monkey Man, a bone crunching odyssey of ass-kickery through the streets of Mumbai.

We’re introduced to Kid (Dev Patel), an underground fighter with a somewhat unconventional gimmick. He enters the ring wearing a rubber gorilla mask, is used as a punching bag by other combatants, and usually goes down in the third round. The deal he’s got with Tiger (Sharlto Copley), a slimy promoter, is that the more he bleeds, the more money he makes. Horrible work if you can get it.

Kid is more than a masochist – a lot more. He’s playing the long game, and one of his earliest moves involves the theft of a purse. In a bravura sequence, the purse travels through the hands of over a dozen people, just so Kid can return it to its owner. That would be Queenie (Ashwini Kalsekar), a vicious crime boss who wields considerable influence. 

Kid leverages the return of Queenie’s purse for a job. He gets one as a dishwasher in a highly selective club. He also picks up a side hustle with Alphonso (Pitobash), a crook-of-all-trades who shows Kid the ropes. In exchange for throwing a fight and making Alphonso a nice profit, Kid slowly comes to co-opt Alphonso and use him as a pawn.

A pawn for what? Like I said, Kid is playing the long game, and he now has access to Mumbai’s elite. His endgame is revenge, specifically against the chief of police Rana (Sikandar Kher). As time goes on, Kid learns more, trains more, and does more. He transforms from a man-sized tackling dummy to a killing machine, and nothing will stand in his way.

I’ve seen Monkey Man described as “John Wick in Mumbai.” It’s an understandable comparison considering director Dev Patel has made a revenge movie where the hero slaughters his way to victory and has a cute puppy.** But that comparison is shallow, since Patel’s film shares DNA with classics like I Saw the Devil, Oldboy, The Raid, and The Night Comes for Us. He’s made an undeniable passion project, one with equal parts heart and grit. 

So much so that there are moments where the film feels overstuffed, almost as if Patel thought he’d have one shot to make this movie and crammed it full of every idea, notion, theme, and cool moment he could think of. The result is a somewhat bloated two hour movie that’s very good, yet hiding inside it is an hour forty-five movie we’d look at as great. I can live with that, since a somewhat too long Monkey Man is still a damn good movie. While his usage of shakycam is a bit much at times, the action scenes are well-choreographed, creative, and occasionally gnarly AF. Along with that, the cinematography takes us through neon soaked clubs, dank alleys, and lush forests. It looks so good that it feels like the announcement of a bold voice in action filmmaking. Patel has also utilized a tone of mournful anger that’s commonplace in Korean and Indonesian action. It’s true that Kid is on a mission of vengeance, yet he also ends up fighting for people that are shoved to the margins in Indian society, and who suffer in silence too often.

I wished that the screenplay by Patel, John Collee, and Paul Angunawela was as strong as the direction. Part of the problem is that I, a dumb American, surely missed a chunk of the religious, sociopolitical, and spiritual subtext specific to India.*** I think that’s fine, since the script isn’t meant to be aimed at me, the aforementioned dumb American. Beyond that, there were two issues that stood out to me.

The first is that the characterization strains to be one-dimensional, much less two-dimensional. Kid’s character is thoughtful and nuanced, which I appreciated. I just wished that his antagonists were more than snarling psychopaths. The second issue is that the screenplay leans on flashbacks to Kid’s childhood a lot. A little can go a long way with flashbacks. Here, it’s almost as if the writers didn’t trust the audience to understand things, and it’s not as if the screenplay is operating on a level of complexity equal to The Maltese Falcon.

While the performances aren’t bad, they’re all in service to Patel’s performance as Kid. It’s not an exaggeration to say that, from an acting standpoint, Patel carries the film. Virtually every scene features either his character’s younger or present day self. He’s not playing a roided-up beast or a spec-ops killer. Kid is really just a guy, though a very determined one. We see him make choices, make mistakes, and improve over time. He flings himself into the fight scenes, and I liked very much that he’s not an unstoppable badass. In fact, for a lot of the film, he’s someone who constantly gets his ass kicked and keeps getting up. That’s the secret to Patel’s performance, the look in his eyes. It’s a look of pure drive and focus.

I have no idea what action movies will evolve into. Will we have a return to buddy-cop**** action comedies? Couldn’t tell you! Maybe more Die Hard-style thrillers? Perhaps! The only thing I do know is that, despite its flaws, Dev Patel’s Monkey Man is destined to hit hard, much like a super angry guy in a gorilla mask.


*Does superhero fatigue exist? Perhaps, but the fact that we’re talking about it ad infinitum is not great for the genre. Though it makes me wonder if people in the 1960s complained about Western fatigue.

**Spoiler alert – the dog is just fine.

***Context clues gave me a vague idea of what Patel was digging into, I just wished at the time I’d known the specifics.

****Believe in the concept of copaganda or not, but it’s a real thing on the minds of a lot of people. As a result, I don’t know that we’ll see as many heroic portrayals of police as we used to.

Tim has been alarmingly enthusiastic about movies ever since childhood. He grew up in Boulder and, foolishly, left Colorado to study Communications in Washington State. Making matters worse, he moved to Connecticut after meeting his too-good-for-him wife. Drawn by the Rockies and a mild climate, he triumphantly returned and settled down back in Boulder County. He's written numerous screenplays, loves hiking, and embarrassed himself in front of Samuel L. Jackson. True story.