Dev Patel's new action movie Monkey Man is so much more than the next John Wick

Monkey Man
(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Dev Patel's directorial debut, Monkey Man, is a brutal, no holds barred beatdown of a movie. The film focuses on Patel's protagonist, known only as Kid, who is on a bloody quest for vengeance spurred by an unspeakable crime from his past. The mission brings him up against the corrupt ruling classes in a political but personal struggle. Naturally, the parallels to John Wick are obvious. 

It's something the film itself is very aware of, too, considering it name checks John Wick early in the runtime when Patel's Kid is buying himself a gun. The neon-lit action sequences, frequent needle drops, and even Patel's sharp black suit all feel like homages, deliberate or not. Many reviews and reactions to the movie have drawn the comparison. But Monkey Man is so much more than the next John Wick. 

A labor of love

Monkey Man

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

For one thing, Monkey Man is a film that could only have been made by Patel. The title refers to the Hindu deity Hanuman, a figure the protagonist's late mother compared him to as a child – and, as an adult, Kid wears a monkey mask as he participates in vicious underground fights. But Patel himself also has a personal connection to Hanuman. 

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"Hanuman really captivated me. He has been sort of an emblem for my father and many in my family," Patel said at the film's SXSW premiere (via Hindustan Times). "If you go to any gym in India, there's Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ronnie Coleman and Hanuman. What baffled me growing up was this iconography of this super-strong being who could hold mountains in one hand and split his chest open. It reminded me of the iconography of Superman. I was like, this is amazing, I wish the world knew about it. When you go deep into it, he is sort of a guy who has lost faith in himself and had to be reminded of who he was."

This isn't the only way Patel has poured himself into the movie, either. Production took a huge physical toll on the actor/director, which included broken bones – necessitating a screw in one hand – an eye infection, and a torn shoulder. A series of catastrophic setbacks threatened to knock production off course entirely, too, though Patel was able to salvage the process with considerable effort and innovation (including shooting on his own cell phone and glueing broken tables back together after he called cut, ready to go again). This was, in every sense, a labor of love. 

Into the action

Monkey Man

(Image credit: Universal Pictures)

Then there's the fact that the film was almost consigned to oblivion entirely, after a distribution deal with Netflix fell through: Jordan Peele and his production company, the aptly named Monkeypaw Productions, rescued the movie from obscurity in a fitting twist of fate and brought it to Universal for theatrical release.

Monkey Man truly is a film that deserves to be seen on the big screen, with those pulse-pounding, thumping action sequences the kind that need a massive canvas and maxed out speakers. The hand-to-hand fighting draws on so much more than John Wick's (excellent) action, too, which is something Patel himself has pointed out. "For me – I'm a huge fan of the franchise – but, you know, this film is born from my love of so much action cinema, from Bruce Lee to Sammo Hung, to Jet Li to Jackie Chan, to Korean cinema that totally changed my life, and also Bollywood," Patel told Austin American-Statesman. "It's a weird cocktail of all these things that I've injected into this film."

Beyond the action, there's a cultural specificity to Monkey Man that sets it firmly apart from John Wick's globetrotting adventures. Monkey Man is unflinchingly unafraid to delve into politics and class in its setting of a fictionalized Indian city, with the plot revolving around Kid's quest to topple the corrupt chief of police responsible for his mother's murder, and the religious leader the police chief supports, all while posing as an invisible, mistreated member of a swanky establishment's waitstaff. There's also the Hanuman mythology, of course, as well as a significant portion of the film dedicated to Kid getting the spiritual and physical help he needs from his city's subjugated transgender and gender-nonconforming community.

Vipin Sharma's Alpha, a trans woman, is particularly instrumental in helping Kid remember who he is and the importance of his roots in one moving, hair-raising scene. "The pain, it will leave you once it's finished teaching you," Alpha says, in wise words that resonate with the entire film. "This is an anthem for the underdog, the voiceless, the marginalized," Patel told Variety, and he couldn't be more correct. 

Being the next John Wick is a perfectly fine thing for a film to be, of course, but it's clear Patel had altogether different ambitions when he embarked on the epic undertaking that is Monkey Man. It's an astonishingly self-assured directorial debut with Patel's fingerprints all over it, with plenty to say, and frenetic, skillful action that captivates. In short, it's so much more than the next John Wick, and that's a very good thing. 

Monkey Man is out now in UK cinemas. For more on what else you should be watching at the cinema, be sure to check out the rest of our Big Screen Spotlight series.

Molly Edwards
Entertainment Writer

I'm an Entertainment Writer here at GamesRadar+, covering all things film and TV for the site's Total Film and SFX sections. I previously worked on the Disney magazines team at Immediate Media, and also wrote on the CBeebies, MEGA!, and Star Wars Galaxy titles after graduating with a BA in English.