Film Review: Jiu Jitsu is much like Nicolas Cage; scrappy, eager-to-please and a lot of fun

Nicolas Cage

Jiu Jitsu stars Alain Moussi as Jake Barnes, an amnesiac military man who is on the run from an unseen force that is attacking him. Sustaining a severe head injury in the process, he is taken in and nursed back to health by the military. He is interrogated severely by Myra (Marie Avgeropoulos); who believes he is no harm to the military until they are attacked by a group of mercenaries that take Jake in.

Led by Keung (Tony Jaa), the group (Juju Chan, Frank Grillo, Marrese Crump, Rigan Machado and others) tell Jake that they are friends and it sparks something within him to know more about his past. The group tell him about his role in saving the world via a story where every six years, an ancient order of jiu jitsu fighters joins forces to battle a vicious race of alien invaders.

On his quest, he meets ex-military man Wylie (Nicolas Cage), who was meant to fight the alien invaders six years prior; but took the coward’s way out in disgrace. In order to redeem himself, he joins the group and decides to teach Jake in order for him to fulfil his destiny.

If this synopsis sounds like B-movie fodder, that is because it definitely is. The story is based on the comic book of the same name, which was written by the writer/director Dimitri Logothetis and co-writer Jim McGrath. While the plot sounds simple, the film hints there is a lot more depth and detail within the world it establishes.

It does sound admirable that the filmmakers would aim for such ambitions (including comic book transitions, loose ends in its own mythology left for future instalments) but the budget limitations and simplistic plot makes the attempts at world-building feel perfunctory at best and tedious at worst. It also does not help that Logothetis tends to the take the storytelling more serious than the ridiculous plot warrants; making the emotional drama feel unearned and even laughable.

But on face value, does any one want to watch this film for the plot? Or even the characters? Nope, me neither. Logothetis is best known nowadays for producing the recent Kickboxer films but back in the 80s and 90s, he has directed entertaining B-movie genre fare like Slaughterhouse Rock and Pretty Smart. In the case of Jiu Jitsu, the film hearkens back to a time of thirty years ago, where genre fare did not aim for big budgets or special effects, but simply big entertainment value and high concepts; similar to films from Cannon Studios or Hong Kong films from Golden Harvest Studios.

On that note, Jiu Jitsu succeeds mightily as it provides exactly what it says on the tin: martial arts, alien invaders and Nicolas Cage. One of the best things about martial arts movies is that you do not need to have grand special effects for the film to excite the audience since the martial arts itself IS the special effect.

The action choreography by Supoj Khaowwong is complex and variable enough for it to excite and veer away from repetition – including usage of weapons like katanas, nunchaku, tonfas, knives and martial arts styles like muay thai, judo, karate and of course jiu jitsu. The establishing of fight scenes is clever and innovative in some ways as well. In one particularly exciting scene, Logothetis and cinematographer Gerardo Madrazo opt for long takes and then proceed to change points-of-view from Jake to the audience as observers; making the action scene enjoyably refreshing.

It also helps that the cast consist mostly of highly-trained martial artists (although Rick Yune and Marie Avgeropoulos are sorely underused) who capably handle the stuntwork convincingly and have enough solid, charismatic presence to make their efforts felt. The concept of acting in this type of film is neither here or there but that kind of mindset has spanned for a very long time; meaning that martial artists on-screen are only seen for their physical prowess rather than their acting capabilities. However, the film does have a major wildcard up its sleeve and that is Nicolas Cage.

Cage is not known for any work in the martial arts genre but when has he ever worked within acting conventions? Like a lot of his work, Cage has taken acting inspirations for his roles to new heights. In Bad Lieutenant – Port of Call New Orleans, he was inspired by James Stewart; in Kick-Ass, he was inspired by Adam West and in Mandy, he was inspired by Bruce Lee and the presence of Jason in the Friday the 13th films. Whilst, in Jiu Jitsu, his inspiration for the role of Wylie (and never has a name for a role felt so appropriate) was Dennis Hopper’s performance in Apocalypse Now and Cage makes his role a lot of fun.

His performance may not reach the pantomime heights of Vampire’s Kiss nor does it become insanely meta like his work in Between Worlds (which included a scene where Cage as his character is reading a book called Memories by Nicolas Cage mid-coitus); but Cage nevertheless looks like he is really enjoying himself. How can you not be entertained by Cage as he practices martial arts, speaks in caffeinated speech, declares himself to be crazy and dons newspaper hats?

On that note, that basically sums up Jiu Jitsu. Sure, the acting is not up to snuff, the budget limitations are blatantly obvious, the dialogue is immensely silly, the story is incredibly derivative (Mortal Kombat meets Predator) and the attempts at drama come off as laughable at best. But in a serendipitous way, those flaws make Jiu Jitsu feel like a throwback to those genre films of the 80s and 90s; charmingly flawed and yet eager to please.

Nicolas Cage

THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Jiu Jitsu will be available on demand from November 20th.

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