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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Finally: Nicolas Cage picks up a sword, goes Full Cage on some martial-arts aliens

Finally: Nicolas Cage picks up a sword, goes Full Cage on some martial-arts aliens

Screenshot: Green Olive Films
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The condemned: Jiu Jitsu (2020)

The plot: Do you remember that episode of The Simpsons from way back in season two when Homer’s brother, the car manufacturer, decides the way to get his out-of-touch-with-the-common-man car company back on track is to let Homer design the new model? And Homer lists off all the thing he’d want in a dream car—any of which, individually, actually might sound pretty neat? (Sound-proof bubble for the kids in the backseat always seemed like a winner.) But then, when it’s unveiled, all of those ideas combined turn the car into a monstrosity, because it’s a bunch of half-baked ideas executed totally earnestly?

Surely, you see where I’m going with this.

Jiu Jitsu opens with a mystery man (Alain Moussi) fleeing some unknown entity, only to be hit in the back with a throwing star and falling off a cliff, where he knocks his head on a rock underwater and only barely survives. When he wakes up, the Asian woman who sewed him up deposits him at a nearby military outpost, where he’s interrogated by a military intelligence officer named Myra (The 100’s Marie Avgeropoulos)—unfortunately, he’s suffering amnesia from his injuries. But after he unexpectedly displays a talent for kicking tremendous amounts of ass when some foolish soldier lays a hand on him, she takes him outside for some air (sure, normal interrogation maneuver) where he’s immediately rescued by a martial-arts operative (Tony Jaa) who seems to be friends with him.

After escaping the military folks, we learn a few facts: Our mystery man is named Jake, and he’s in league with a small group of shadowy warriors (Jaa, Frank Grillo, JuJu Chan, among others) who have entered Burma (oh, that’s where we are, by the way) for a single purpose: To take down an alien. See, every six years, a comet passes by earth (you know the one, right?) and it opens a portal to a distant planet, and an alien passes through it, ready to fight some anointed human champions in hand-to-hand combat. (There’s a whole backstory about how the alien was the source of martial-arts knowledge on earth, and he taught jiu jitsu to this elite cadre of warriors whose… descendants?… now have to stick around for the sole purpose of getting straight-up murdered every six years.) After killing his chosen enemies, the alien disappears through the portal again—unless he doesn’t get his match. Then, he’ll supposedly kill everyone on the planet.

Okay! If that wasn’t enough backstory, Jake randomly falls into the underground cave of a former champion (Nicolas Cage) who went a little batty. Explaining that the alien (Brax is his name, and yes, every time someone mentions it, it sounds an awful lot like they’re referencing a certain Space Ghost character) didn’t kill him because he thought he was crazy (“No honor in killing the crazy”). Cage’s swordsman informs him that he, Jake, is actually the chosen one; before losing his memory, he ran away from Brax, and thus got a bunch of people killed. Understandably, Jake feels guilty about this, so he decides to go back and fight the alien. Plus, everyone keeps telling Jake that he came up with an elaborate plan they’re all relying on to beat Brax—may as well stick to it, right? So they summon the alien to a certain location, and one by one, every member of the group starts fighting Brax, and dying in like order, until finally, Jake and Tony Jaa’s Keung (his name might be mentioned once?) team up to battle Brax inside the temple containing the portal. With a little explosives help from a twitchy soldier who survived (Eddie Steeples from My Name Is Earl), the two “jiu jitsu” masters attempt to take down Brax for good.

Over-the-top box copy: I can’t help but feel like the marketing team really missed an opportunity here. If ever a movie cried out for some over-the-top copy, it’s a film where a crazy-acting Nic Cage battles martial arts aliens. Instead, we get a cover that’s almost completely bare, save for the tagline, “Out of darkness, the ultimate fighter rises,” which is a line that seems like it got lost en route to a Kickboxer sequel’s DVD cover. And the back contains the line, “Fight for the future of humanity,” which, while technically accurate, also describes roughly one-fifth of all action and sci-fi movies. Again: This is a movie where an alien comes to earth with the sole purpose of engaging in combat to the death via a jiu jitsu style of fighting he literally taught to the humans he’s planning to beat up. Ten bucks says one of our commenters can come up with better box copy within 30 seconds of reading this.

The descent: Should I describe the basic outline of the plot again? Either this kind of thing instantly makes you curious (albeit with a healthy sense of skepticism) or it doesn’t. And even if you’re the kind of action-movie fan who doesn’t care for silliness, then please direct your attention to…

The theoretically heavenly talent: Sure, Cage has been in his fair share of stinkers, but honestly, look at this goddamned roster of action talent: Frank Grillo! Juju Chan! Rick Yune! Tony freakin’ Jaa! Putting them all in one movie seems like an abundance of riches, even if rebooted Kickboxer franchise star and sort-of actor Alain Moussi is the charisma void at the center of the story. (Our film critic Ignatiy Vishnevetsky once accurately described Moussi as possessing the “screen presence one would expect from Jai Courtney’s stunt double.”) Presumably, Moussi is here because director and co-writer Dimitri Logothetis likes working with him (they’ve made two prior films together, Wings Of The Dragon and Kickboxer: Retaliation); the bigger question is why Logothetis is still being allowed to helm movies with multi-million dollar budgets. (Admittedly, this is a pretty low-rent affair, but you don’t get that kind of talent without some serious cash, even if they were likely only on set for a few days.) From a cursory scan of his IMDB page, it doesn’t seem like Logothetis—who has been directing film and television since 1987—has ever made a decent fiction film. (He did make a few acclaimed documentaries.) Still: Cage. Jaa. Grillo. Chan. Yune. If nothing else, the film has them.

The execution: To quote my man William Hurt in A History Of Violence: How do you fuck that up?! This film has all the ingredients necessary to make a deliriously fun action/sci-fi romp, and yet Logothetis and Moussi do their level best to suck as much fun as possible out of the proceedings. Whether it’s Logothetis’ indifferent framing of the fight scenes, the borderline nonsensical editing (characters will appear and disappear from different places in the blink of an eye), or Moussi’s molasses-slow reaction time to anything that’s not a fight sequence (in which he acquits himself well enough—he started out as an honest-to-god jiu jitsu fighter, after all), the barely-there nature of the film’s assembly makes it a real chore at times.

Luckily, they have some determined opponents in the rest of the cast, who manage to bring some real entertainment value to the proceedings. Let’s start with the obvious: Nicolas Cage is having fun here, and it shows. It helps that the character he’s playing is meant to be a little bit cracked, sure (the guy’s name is “Wylie”; they may as well have let him run off a cliff and then handed him an anvil), but Cage does just about every line reading with a devilish grin and infectious sense of mischief. Just check out the scene where Jake first stumbles into Wylie’s underground hideout, and the two fight while Wylie tries to jog Jake’s memory—including his best hobby:

That’s to say nothing of the part where Wylie unexpectedly tags along with the rest of Frank Grillo’s crew: “Could I have something to eat? Like, a noodle? Pickle?” He knows exactly what kind of movie this is—or should be, anyway—and spends his allotted screen time trying to bend Jiu Jitsu, pretzel-like, into that shape. Bonus points to the movie, though, for making it seem like Cage is around much more than he actually was: Reportedly, he was only on set for the first three days of the six-week shoot, and yet it feels like he’s one of the co-leads. They must have run-and-gun his scenes constantly; I’d be shocked if much of it was anything but the first take or two.

That dearth of Cage’s presence (and, I’d have to assume, Grillo and the rest of them—it would be interesting to learn which slumming action star was on set for how long, and when, if ever, they overlapped) probably accounts for why some of those action scenes seem so choppy. There’s no way the filmmakers could’ve gotten in all the fight choreography they needed during that narrow window of time, so they presumably shot a lot of the stuff with Cage’s stunt double much later. It doesn’t make for the prettiest of sequences, but it does mean that both logic and jiu jitsu can be thrown out the window in favor of having Brax defeat Cage’s character with something right out of a WWE cage match:

Another real weakness is the film’s wildly unnecessary reliance on poor CGI. Sure, we’ve all come to expect a certain degree of low-grade digital effects on films of this scale—whether it’s the flames in the background of an explosion or some hastily added spurts of blood—but Jiu Jitsu seems to think Brax requires endless amounts of futuristic throwing stars to be intimidating. Surely, the fact that he’s an obvious Predator rip-off (he turns invisible and hunts people in the jungle for the first half of the film) wouldn’t necessitate such fakery, but here’s a scene where he just unleashes thousands of the things on Jake, Myra, and the rest of her military crew, and it’s practically Birdemic levels of absurdist CGI.

But let’s talk about one of the weirdest things the movie does, because it’s something that pulls you so completely out of the film, I’m still scratching my head about it days later. The obvious action centerpiece of the movie comes fairly early on, when Tony Jaa’s Keung arrives to rescue Jake from the military outpost. He storms the compound, gets to his friend, and together they take down everyone in their way and run off into the fields. (Like, open fields. Nobody can aim their guns, I guess? That’s one incompetent military unit.) The whole thing is staged as a flashy long take (it’s not, obviously; they just use the ol’ hide-the-cuts technique), following Jaa as he takes down men one after the next. It’s a joy to watch Jaa do his thing, even if the fight choreography isn’t always top-notch. I suspect Logothetis didn’t even film this sequence, since it’s so completely at odds with how the rest of the movie is shot; my hunch is that this one section is why stunt coordinator Supoj Khaowwong is also credited as “action director.”

But check out what happens once Jake joins Jaa and the two continue their single-take battle to escape. At one point, a soldier punches Jake in the chest, and for no discernible reason, the camera is abruptly thrown into Jake’s point of view. He fights for a few seconds, and then—with another punch—we’re knocked right back out again into the normal third-person perspective. There is literally no reason, narratively or otherwise, for this to happen. It’s baffling. And then? It fucking happens again. What?

I get that low-budget features are often an excuse to try out tricks and techniques just for the fun of it, but holy hell, is that a jarring one. They never return to it for the rest of the movie.

But that’s the level of filmmaking we’re dealing with on Jiu Jitsu. I could spend a lot of time digging into all the ways the script fails to cohere, but it’s not half as much fun as pointing out the visual weirdness on display. (One example: Early on, Frank Grillo’s Harrigan informs Jake that everything they’re doing was actually Jake’s plan from the start, and Wylie and others keep reminding him of that fact. Yet, if that’s the case, it’s a seriously bad plan, since it seems to involve each fighter attacking Brax one by one and then dying, while the others sit around and watch. Great plan, Jake!) So many baseline staging rules are violated. At one point a member of the jiu jitsu clan is kicking a dude’s ass, and the guy stops dead in his tracks for no other reason than, if he were to keep moving, he would run into the camera. It’s hilarious. Here, see for yourself:

Jiu Jitsu is the kind of film where you check the time to see if it’s almost over, only to realize there’s still 40 minutes left. There’s no premise established by the narrative that doesn’t get violated minutes later. At one point, Harrigan says that if the sun sets and Brax is still on earth waiting to fight Jake, he’ll stay forever and kill everyone on the planet. Shortly thereafter, the sun sets, and the film just keeps going. At another point, Wylie explains to Jake that Brax respects a fair fight: one on one, no cheating. Yet when Brax faces his opponents, he immediately cheats, if you consider moving at hyperspeed or using a heat ray cheating, which, you would think so, no? Best of all, toward the end, we learn Cage’s Wylie is supposed to be Jake’s father. Sure! At one point, Jake asks someone, “Hey, you’re hurt. Can you breathe?” Good question, Jake.

Is this a good time to mention that there’s essentially no actual jiu jitsu in the movie Jiu Jitsu?

Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: I wouldn’t count on it. Despite all the potential for this to be a campy yet action-heavy masterpiece, the behind-the-camera talent (and in front of, in the case of Moussi) just don’t have what it would’ve taken to make this as enjoyable at it should’ve been.

Damnable commentary track or special features? If only. I would love to see a making-of on Jiu Jitsu, or just hear Logothetis explain his decisions. Alas, we’ll have to make them up ourselves. I’ll start: The choice to kill off Frank Grillo without so much as letting him have a single cool fight scene was because Logothetis has an intense personal vendetta against the man. Surely that’s the best explanation for hiring Frank Grillo and then not letting him do anything, right?

Alex McLevy is a writer and editor at The A.V. Club, and would kindly appreciate additional videos of robots failing to accomplish basic tasks.

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