Now before you think Jiu Jitsu is a straight-forward martial arts flick that aims to introduce audiences to the intricacies of its titular fighting discipline (you know, like Gymkata or something), think again. Since recently rebooting the Kickboxer franchise, producer-director Dimitri Logothetis treats us to his version of a Marvel movie, full of intergalactic myth-making, alien invaders, legendary Earth-protecting warriors, and copious amounts of questionable CGI. Is he overreaching? Maybe. But with a dearth of new action-fantasies on the horizon in this new cinematic landscape, maybe this is just what the doctor ordered.
We’re plunged into the action right away alongside the film’s star, Alain Moussi (Logothetis’s martial arts muse from the last two Kickboxer films), as he dashes through a forest dodging a barrage of deadly throwing stars. Coming to the edge of a cliff, he plunges into the water below and subsequently wakes up in the infirmary of an army base in Burma. (Upon hearing this, he mutters “thought it was Myanmar” – a sly Seinfeld reference?). Immediately grilled about his identity, he can offer no answers, as the fall has brought about an acute case of amnesia. Moussi, who’s like a far less charismatic version of Scott Adkins, adapts to this blank-faced Jason Bourne routine adequately.
Luckily for him, the interrogation doesn’t last long and he’s sprung free by none other than Tony Jaa, with the two efficiently dispatching a ton of faceless soldiers along the way. Once in the clear, the first order of business is discovering his name, which is, somewhat anticlimactically, Jake. But what’s more, Jake is a member of an ancient-order of jiu-jitsu fighters who must defend the human race every six years from an alien fighter named Brax who travels to our planet through an ancient wormhole. Upon hearing this, Jake (and myself, really) continues to stare blankly.
Once all of this exhausting backstory is relayed, the group of warriors (which also consists of Frank Grillo, JuJu Chan and Marrese Crump) journey back into the forest to face off with Brax, whose futuristic design seems entirely based on the Predator (minus the dreadlocks). And one by one, the soldiers are felled (again, just like in Predator) with everything coming down to a final showdown between Brax and Jake for the fate of humanity.
Jiu Jitsu turns into a bit of a slog at this point, mired in too much banal running and hiding in the woods, but at least Logothetis knows his way around a fight scene, throwing in some surprising shooting aesthetics and creative choreography to spice things up. The film even goes all Hardcore Henry during one sequence shot entirely in POV. On the other hand, the less said about the comic book panel transitions (à la the director’s cut of The Warriors) the better.
But wait! I haven’t even gotten to the main attraction here (at least for me) which is, of course, our Lord and Savior Nicolas Cage as a mysterious hermit type who accompanies our heroes on their quest while generally espousing the film’s mythology. Outfitted in scruffy robes and a luscious wig, it’s the kind of role that would be immediately hilarious if we hadn’t already seen him play it ad nauseam (see The Sorcerer’s Apprentice or Outcast).
Yet, in these dark days, just the sight of Cage’s face after a full year-long drought of any new live-action performances brings joy, especially in moments like the one where he strangely shows Jake his newfound hobby of constructing newspaper hats while hiding out in his lair (where he’s getting the newspapers to make said hats is a question worth pondering in and of itself). And while I’m certainly not going to compare Nic’s fighting abilities to that of Moussi or Jaa (or even Frank Grillo for that matter), he still gets in on the action with a showdown of his own with Brax. I mean, he doesn’t win or anything, but he certainly makes an effort. And that’s what really counts.