Monkey Man: the Indian John Wick?

I knew as I was watching it that Monkey Man was going to be a divisive movie. Not because of political statements. The film’s politics are front and center but are specific to India in a way where they will be lost on most of a western audience. I only realized I had some reading to do when I got out of the theater because I’ve seen enough movies to know when I’m being shown thinly veiled allegory. Monkey Man is going to be divisive because it makes artistic choices for the sake of storytelling without caring if it’s going to please everyone- which means it’s not going to please everyone. 

Monkey Man is a passion project by director, co-writer and star Dev Patel and passion is something that you can feel coming off this thing every second of the run time. Even the massive number of production company logos as the movie opens paints a picture of the hell Monkey Man went through to get a theatrical release. It’s also a bold movie. Among many other things, before you even start watching the film, Monkey Man has willfully lied to you. 

The trailer for Monkey Man promises something pretty straightforward- Indian John Wick with a touch of commentary on poverty. That is absolutely not what it delivers, but the first act of the movie benefits from you believing it does. 

The movie starts with Dev Patel as the protagonist, who goes by the obvious alias “Bobby,” making money by being the heel in a work martial arts competition which is a kind of mix of pro wrestling and Muay Thai. I believe what is shown pulls from some real competitions but the specifics are made up for the movie. It doesn’t really matter for narrative purposes. The important thing is that he plays characters for the crowd, wears a monkey mask and takes beatings on purpose. Then you watch as it slowly becomes apparent that Bobby is hatching a revenge scheme against some powerful people that is clearly a long time in the making. 

At the most surface level, the plot to Monkey Man couldn’t be simpler- it’s a martial arts revenge movie in three acts. When you see Bobby putting together his revenge plan in the first act, the lie of “Indian John Wick” makes for great buildup. How exactly is it going to go down? How bad is he going to fuck up everyone in that fancy night club? This all takes a turn early on in the movie when Bobby purchases a pistol from a seedy weapon’s dealer. The dealer literally offers Bobby the pistol from John Wick, identifying the film by name. Bobby refuses and asks for something smaller and then, now that the movie has told you this is not Indian John Wick, it abandons the facade entirely. Bobby starts becoming more emotional. The audience starts seeing his plan being less heist-movie slick and more a guy winging it. And then, because it’s the first act of a three act movie, the plan falls apart.  

Dev Patel’s acting absolutely carries the first part of this movie. While I said the surface plot was a simple revenge movie, the audience doesn’t get to know most of the details of what Bobby’s avenging and against whom until after the whole plan goes off the rails. But the building tension and the emotional investment is still very well set up. I was literally leaning forward in my seat waiting for the first shoe to drop and it was based entirely on Patel’s largely wordless acting and some great closeup shots letting me feel what was going on before I fully understood it. 

After that buildup, however, came the first of two big action set pieces in the film- and this is where I think the movie will lose some people. The John Wick style action in the trailer is cherry picked to create a different feel from what is shown in the film. The reality is a lot of shaking cameras and disorienting quick cuts that I used to complain about in the Bourne movies. It’s all very much on purpose. The second of the two action set pieces in this movie is much more slick and easy to follow- so Patel and the crew obviously know how to make that kind of sequence. But for the action after the plan goes awry, the visual experience for the audience is as chaotic and difficult to understand as the emotional experience for the main character. 

I can’t say if meticulously building up to an action sequence in the middle of a film that is visually difficult to understand is the best way to tell the story. For me, it worked mainly because the film did such a good job getting me invested in the stakes before it happened. People who came in expecting John Wick and didn’t immediately get hooked by Monkey Man’s vibes might just check out entirely by the midpoint. But, showing the action the way Monkey Man does is still a bold artistic choice and I respect the movie for having a vision. 

Monkey Man really shines in the art of cinema. The whole film is brimming over with layered metaphors and leaves you with a lot more to engage with than what is on the surface level at all times. As just one example, the movie calls attention to the conflict between Hindu, Muslim and Christian groups in the country and the journey of the main character contains religious allegory that is a haphazard mashup of those three mythologies. 

There’s a focus on gender and sexuality that permeates the themes of the story. At one point a side character with a set of drums has a musical act, played for laughs, where he describes the deeper drum sound as the husband and the higher drum sound as the wife and plays a song that’s kind of an argument and also kind of sex. 

In a later scene Dev Patel’s character is punching a heavy bag and the drummer starts calling out combos by playing the drums, with the male sound being the right hand and the female sound being the left hand. This is all in a temple with a prominent enshrined Shankaranarayana. The temple itself is run by a group of- what one British broadcaster in the films describe as transsexuals but I think they are closer to what westerners would call intersex- monks so the dichotomy is very deliberate. 

Right hand/masculinity/shiva and left hand/femininity/vishnu. The individual needs to destroy in order to create just as the nation and the film itself. Most of the elements in Monkey Man exist on three levels, which I recognize as feeding into the Christian portion of the religious mythos, but all three traditions that the story pulls from do have themes of trinities in them. Even something as innocuous as the detergent that keeps showing up in the film- Bobby’s Bleach!- starts as being depicted as part of the poverty that binds Bobby, is turned into an element of his revenge and finally becomes a method by which he cleanses himself of his past. Patel really gives you a lot to chew on in every shot.  

Slumdog Asskicker

If you’re wondering how well the skinny kid from Slumdog Millionaire stacks up as an action hero- he’s alright. He throws a three punch combo and a spinning back kick convincingly enough and he looks a lot looser than when other actors are trying to do an action role and their shoulders are so tense they are jutting forward. 

Do you need more than that? The man is acting his fucking ass off in a story that is simultaneously the hero of the underdogs revenging his persecution from an entrenched upper class and Hanuman storming the gates of heaven to kill Ravana. If you’re still hung up on Patel not doing his own stunts as well as Keanu I’m going to need you to chill all the way the fuck out. 

One thing I started to think watching Monkey Man is that the themes and the visuals were reminding me of a lesser known movie from 2013 called Only God Forgives- which isn’t very helpful as a review because, first, I think Monkey Man executes the things that make it similar much better than Only God Forgives and second, as far as I know myself and the one other guy in the theater during festival season were the only ones who fucking saw that movie. 

However, towards the end of the Monkey Man, Bobby tells another character “Only God will forgive you now.” Another title drop to let me know that these similarities were on purpose. And that’s what makes Monkey Man worth your time, even if the movie doesn’t always work for you. Everything was planned. Nothing Monkey Man shows you is an afterthought. The film has heart because it’s the heart the creator has for it. Patel is opening up his chest and showing the audience something inside. It’s art. It will make you think. 

It made me think that maybe that other guy in the theater back in 2013 was Dev Patel and I didn’t notice. 

Caption: He could be sitting behind you right now… emoting
Peter Lampasona is a writer originally working a beat in combat sports. Peter has contributed to publications such as MMAMania, The Fight Nerd, and US Combat Sports; worked on production for the now defunct Spike TV shows MMA Uncensored Live and the Unrivaled documentary series; appeared in the New York Mixed Martial Arts documentary sporting an, in retrospect, ridiculous haircut. Peter is also a contributor/co-writer of Children of Gaia- having authored War and Horses and Carrying Iron and provided consultation for several Oneshi Press projects, including Children of Gaia: The Great Nations of Rendaraia, Tracy Queen, and PACK. At the time where all major publishers deemed them an unprofitable and failed product, Peter came up with the brilliant idea to break into the field of graphic novels. He currently lives in New York and totally thinks he’s better than you because of it.
The Art of Fighting BS Podcast on Spotify

The Art of Fighting BS Podcast on iTunes

The Art of Fighting BS Podcast on Google Play

The Art of Fighting BS Podcast on Stitcher

Latest articles

Related articles