Started from the Bottom — Monkey Man

William J Hammon
7 min readApr 22, 2024


It’s always interesting to me when an actor becomes a director. Whether it’s a master like Clint Eastwood or someone switching their own genre paradigms like Jordan Peele, there’s something truly intriguing in seeing how the skill set of being in front of the camera transfers to duties behind it. What will their visual style be? How do they prefer to tell a story? Can they earn the trust of their cast to get the best performances, having been one of them, or even acting with them? These are all questions that come with the territory, and it’s fascinating to see how it all plays out, for better or worse.

The latest star to take his seat in the director’s chair is Dev Patel, as he helms, co-writes, and stars in the revenge action film, Monkey Man. I’ve been a fan of his work for over a decade now, mostly because he refuses to be pigeonholed into stereotypical Indian roles. Even when he leans into his heritage, like in Slumdog Millionaire or Lion, there’s enough uniqueness to his characters and enough variety in the story and thematic contexts to ensure that he’s never falling into a trope trap.

That’s the big takeaway from watching this stylistic journey of self-discovery and rampage. This has all the earmarks of a passion/vanity project (depending on your personal tastes), but Patel takes the time to acknowledge what’s come before — either from his own body of work or other noteworthy influences — and forges his own path in a way that not only entertains the audience, but helps advance the cultural conversation through some sly insight.

While watching the film, you’ll see a lot of parallels to the likes of John Wick, and that’s not by accident. The ultraviolent action set pieces are coordinated in similar fashion to the franchise, you see Patel’s character pushing through insane amounts of punishment seemingly on determination and adrenaline alone, and there’s even an adorable dog for a small chunk of the proceedings. There’s even some dialogue outright referencing the Wick films, because as a filmmaker Patel is showing us that he reveres his forebears, tipping his hat rather than ripping it off and pretending it’s original. By doing that, he can make his own changes to the formula so that it feels familiar enough to hook the viewer, but still stands out as an individual and distinct project.

Patel plays “The Kid,” who also goes by “Bobby” as an alias (I’ll use the latter here), a poor young man living in the streets of the fictional city of Yatana, similar in design to Mumbai. Informed by childhood stories of the deity Hanuman, he earns a pittance as an underground bare knuckle boxer paid to throw his fights while wearing a monkey mask. In one of the more clever touches of the movie, all the other boxers have names based on characters from The Jungle Book (Baloo, Bagheera, Shere Khan, and the King Cobra). Not only is it a fun Easter Egg for the attentive viewer, but it serves as the first thematic divergence from the likes of John Wick and James Bond. Bobby is but a man-cub amongst an endless world of wild animals, and he has to gain the wisdom to survive in order to accomplish his goal.

That goal is vengeance against a local guru named Baba Shakti (Makarand Deshpande), who keeps up a front as a pious religious leader while using law enforcement and political puppets to install a fundamentalist hardline regime (likely a commentary on the likes of current Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi); along with his main lieutenant and enforcer, a corrupt police chief named Rana Singh (Sikandar Kher) who killed Bobby’s mother (Adithi Kalkunte) and burned his village to the ground in a forced relocation of religious minorities.

The pursuit of retribution is all too common in action films, but Patel sets his protagonist apart from his peers because of his situation. He’s not a part of the underworld like any run-of-the-mill Jason Statham character. He’s not suave or debonair like Bond. He doesn’t have a lethal reputation to precede him like Wick, immediately instilling fear in his enemies. Bobby is on the bottom rung of society, and he has to work and build his way up to get his shot at justice. While he can fight, he has no honed technique, and he throws his bouts because it’s an easy payday, allowing him to save up to buy a gun. He uses a network of street urchins to steal the purse of Queenie Kapoor (Ashwini Kalsekar), so that he can return it and ask for a job in her club, one where the elites (including Rana Sing) come to indulge in their various vices. This gives him a chance to overachieve — with the help of his supervisor Alphonso, played by Pitobash — working his way up to the penthouse levels, where he’ll finally have a chance to take Singh out.

It’s all very methodical, which at times can drag, but it’s also what makes the journey compelling. Most people who are wronged by society end up in this situation because they’re already in a vulnerable position. Those who have the most prey on those who have the least, to ensure the status quo. The idea of a vast hidden world of assassins is a fun fantasy, and the sight of killing an adorable dog more than enough motivation for a bad-ass bloodbath. But that’s all it can ever be, a fantasy. There’s no sense of realism, keeping the stakes fairly low and self-contained, which is more than fine.

For Bobby, however, this is all-consuming. Powerful people with nothing to lose took everything from him without a second thought, casting him into the streets for only the slightest benefit to themselves. As such, he has to work tirelessly just to even get a brief window of opportunity. And when things inevitably go awry, he must go lower than he’s ever been and rebuild, taking refuge in a temple run by a hijra community (transgender and intersex, essentially), to reset and reinforce the idea that he’s fighting for more than just himself, but for all those who would be victimized and displaced by such narrow influences as Baba Shakti.

Even more importantly, Bobby embarks on this quixotic quest knowing he’ll probably die in the attempt, and he’s made peace with that (evidenced by the highly creative use of red lighting in many of the scenes). The likes of Wick and Bond are certainly willing to lay their lives on the line, and their work requires that risk, but very rarely do they operate from a mortal disadvantage. Bobby’s focus is so well defined that even when he befriends a woman named Sita (Sobhita Dhulipala), a high-end courtesan at Queenie’s club whom she often abuses, it’s clear that she is very much NOT a love interest, but another victim of the system that Bobby is hoping to disrupt. Bobby doesn’t plan on living long enough to love a beautiful woman, only hoping that once his job is done, she and others like her will have things a little easier.

In that respect, Patel himself makes a great meta statement where he shows how he’s grown from his own past. His breakout was Slumdog Millionaire, the best of a fairly mediocre set of Best Picture candidates from 2008. It won, mostly due to the campaigning and chicanery of slime like Harvey Weinstein, which was doubly infuriating given the film’s message that Jamal’s happy ending was the result of fate. Patel gives lie to both angles here. For the story, he shows how a kid from the streets rises up through insane amounts of work and commitment, spotlighting the inequities of society that put him there and reminding us all just how unlikely a good resolution can be. As it relates to the industry, he shows how 15 years of work from that breakthrough have been put to good use to prove that he deserves a chance to tell his own stories.

Is this an all-time great movie? No, not really. Patel does amazing work, but it’s really just his show. The supporting cast doesn’t get much to do apart from Pitobash, and even that’s limited. It beggars belief at times how Bobby’s able to keep going because we’ve been shown that he is actually a human and not a superhero. There are lengthy gaps between set pieces, though when we’re in the thick of it things are quite thrilling. In the end, this is a really good, fun picture that has a bit to say on the screen and a lot to say to the wider world, and in that sense, it’s more than worthy. Because whether you’re rooting for Bobby the character or Dev Patel as an actor and director, the overarching point remains the same. He earned it.

Grade: B+

Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What makes a great action scene for you? Can we get an action movie just starring all the awesome dogs from other action movies? Let me know! Let me know! And remember, you can follow me on Twitter (fuck “X”) and YouTube for even more content!

Originally published at on April 22, 2024.



William J Hammon

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