Jiu Jitsu, 2020.
Co-written and directed by Dimitri Logothetis.
Starring Alain Moussi, Frank Grillo, JuJu Chan, Tony Jaa, and Nicolas Cage.
An ancient order of expert jiu jitsu fighters faces a vicious race of alien invaders in a battle for Earth every six years, but when Earth’s hero is defeated by the leader of the invaders, the future of humanity hangs in the balance.
Easy though it might be to scoff at the prospect of a Nicolas Cage-starring martial arts film, Jiu Jitsu at least benefits from the presence of producer-director Dimitri Logothetis, who turned in surprisingly spectacular results with 2018’s highly entertaining Kickboxer: Retaliation.
And while it’s easy to see why Logothetis felt the need to test out his solid action chops on a more outwardly elevated genre such as sci-fi, despite a stupid-good cast of actors and martial artists-turned-actors at his disposal – including Alain Moussi, Frank Grillo, Tony Jaa, and Rick Yune – this unconvincing effort falls on the shoddier-produced end of straight-to-streaming genre fare.
Every six years, a comet passes by Earth and a hole opens in the side of a temple. A warrior of death then emerges through said hole – an alien named Brax (Ryan Tarran), who possesses the ability to cloak itself at will and visits Earth in order to fight nine of the world’s most formidable warriors. Here’s the catch – if any of the nine refuse to fight, Brax will reduce Earth to a wasteland.
After washing up in Burma without his memory, martial artist Jake Barnes (Moussi) finds himself on an inexorable collision course with Brax, reluctantly teaming up with a squad of expert warriors such as Keung (Jaa), Harrigan (Grillo), and Carmen (JuJu Chan) to ensure that Brax doesn’t unleash an apocalypse upon the world.
It’s as if Predator and Mortal Kombat drove into one another at full-force, and Jiu Jitsu picked up the tattered remnants. Yet honestly, this is hardly the worst movie plot in the world for some fun sci-fi guff, which were it supported by a more interesting script and stronger production values could’ve actually turned out worthwhile.
Despite Logothetis’ prior success with the aforementioned Kickboxer sequel, he seems decidedly less assured in this more outlandish arena, overdosing on hilariously cornball dialogue and woe-inducing “comic relief” which is neither genuinely funny nor even pitiable laughable in a self-aware way.
This marries quite unfortunately with the characters, who generally aren’t developed much beyond being Really Skilled Fighters; for instance the group’s funnyman, Tex (Eddie Steeples), has the sole trait of being a terrible translator. Right.
As thin as the writing is, it’s also fair to say that the performances are wildly hit-and-miss throughout; as amusing as it is to see Nicolas Cage popping up intermittently as a paper hat-wearing sword-master, lead Moussi isn’t as natural an actor as he is a martial artist, with his line deliveries often veering into outright wooden territory.
Though Jaa and Grillo in particular offer variations on their well-honed badass archetypes, the most persuasive performance in the ensemble might well come from Marie Avgeropoulos as Myra, the U.S. army officer who first brings Jake into the fold. Yet despite her appealing moxie, she’s fatally under-used in favour of her more famous co-stars.
It won’t surprise many regular patrons of VOD action flicks “starring” well-known actors that the notable names are largely compartmentalised into their own subplots here, presumably for budgetary and scheduling reasons. Most disappointingly, Cage doesn’t show up in earnest until the 40-minute mark, while hilariously obvious stuntmen are used for his few fight scenes and body doubles for wide shots where his face isn’t visible.
You get the sense that Cage – who spends a good deal of the film wearing a red bandana ala Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now – is just waiting for everything else to tune to his own delirious frequency, but it sadly never gets there. By my count he’s in the film for 20-ish minutes in total, and his oddball work is about as personality-rich as Jiu Jitsu ever dares to get.
Mercifully, Jaa and Grillo are paired together for most of their screen time, with Jaa getting the most substantial action licks of the name martial artist stars, compared to Rick Yune, who barely registers above a day-player here with his near-total lack of Things to Do. That said, one of his few lines of dialogue is a mildly tickling reference to his status as an ex-Bond baddie – “I have a license to kill you,” he tells Jake.
Even beyond Cage, it seems like the more prominent cast members likely weren’t on set together often, with so many characters having their backs to the camera at suspiciously convenient moments and heaps of dialogue clearly being piped in during post-production.
As much as the film picks up promisingly enough once Jake is united with the squad and Brax announces himself, the action rarely rises above workmanlike and certainly lacks the more gritty thrall of Logothetis’ prior film. Beyond a decent attempt at a fight scene shot from a first-person perspective, there’s little here likely to be remembered, even if with the director’s smart emphasis on lengthy mid shots and smooth slow-mo, it has visual coherence in its favour.
That is, at least, until visual effects are required, as they are often. From a wonky CGI comet in the film’s opening sequence to the litany of low-fi comic book-style scene transitions, digital gun muzzle flashes and blood spatter, and various VFX enhancements to Brax’s suit, the effects too often resemble cheap After Effects plugins rather than anything even remotely polished.
All this, combined with one of the most cringe-worthy Wilhelm screams you’re likely to hear this year, ensure that Jiu Jitsu too often smacks of a cartoon rather than live-action – and not in a good way.
And yet perhaps the film’s worst failing isn’t the epic squandering of its talented cast, but how utterly uninteresting its villain is; an inexplicably generic guy-in-suit with a CGI red-eyed gorilla face underneath its visor which truly does have to be seen to be believed.
One can respect Logothetis’ desire to move beyond meat-and-potatoes martial arts movies, but it’s painfully clear throughout that he needed a bigger budget to achieve his vision. Even on an ironic level, this just isn’t as much fun as you might hope for, largely due to the blandly programmatic writing, topped by a totally groan-worthy third act twist.
Despite genuinely anticipating this as a fun, schlocky throwback, the ramshackle production values unfortunately ruin most of the potential entertainment, and buyer beware for Cage completionists; he’s in the movie for just a slice of its runtime.
A few fun fights notwithstanding, this kitschy B-movie is undermined by both its embarrassingly cheap visual effects and the disappointingly scant presence of Nicolas Cage.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Shaun Munro – Follow me on Twitter for more film rambling.