Monkey Man is hitting theaters to strong reviews, boding well for the box office performance of Dev Patel’s directorial debut. It being so well-received is, in part, thanks to Patel rethinking the modern action movie. Monkey Man tells the story of Kid, an impoverished young man living in the fictional city of Yatana (a thinly veiled metaphor for modern-day Mumbai). By night, he fights in an underground fight club, just scraping by on the earnings he makes by getting beaten to a bloody pulp.

His suppressed rage boils over eventually and Kid grows determined to infiltrate the city’s ruling class. The rich elite who have everything while leaving scraps of nothing for the most vulnerable in the city have ties to Kid’s past. Soon, he vows to go on a rampage of revenge against the wealthy men who took everything from him and those like him and, along the way, becomes a hero to the people.

If you think that sounds like an action movie with a message, you’d be right. It’s what sets Monkey Man apart from most action movies. Inspired by the Indian legends of the deity Haruman, a being who takes the form of a monkey, Monkey Man‘s Kid also becomes a symbol of anti-oppression and loyalty. It gives the movie a level of depth rarely seen in the action genre. “That’s what I wanted to do on the action genre,” explained Patel in a new featurette. “I wanted to inject it with culture and philosophy.”

Ever since John Wick – a groundbreaking franchise, no doubt – action movies tend to be slick and stylish, but heavily favor a depth of action choreography over a depth of story. Even with the elevated visuals of current movies in the action genre, they’re still usually just stories of men (or occasionally women) kicking, punching, and shooting their way through strings of bad guys of increasing difficulty before a final boss fight. Monkey Man is one of a few very recent action movies (The Beekeeper is another) that also have something to say in between the punches and kicks. The movie’s anti-elitist excoriation of gluttonous wealth comes immersed in Indian culture and legend, something most American audiences only get in foreign films.

In the story of Hanuman, Patel found something that spoke to him on a deeper level, and it’s a story that he thinks will resonate with many people. It’s an ode to Indian culture, but also an anthem for anyone who has been oppressed, downtrodden, and devalued.

“My grandfather used to tell me the stories of Hanuman that really captivated me. Being scolded for reaching too high and aspiring too big. I was like, ‘I can take this and give it some real social weight. This is an anthem for underdogs, the people that have been pushed to the frays and the edges, swept to the side. We need people that have gone through trauma to inspire us. We try and give a voice to the voiceless, really.”

Get tickets to Monkey Man, in theaters April 5

  • Editorial