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Jiu Jitsu

There’s something going on in the world of indie action that I don’t think gets enough attention. It started in 2016 with KICKBOXER: VENGEANCE, a fun remake of the Cannon classic, with stuntman Alain Moussi in the lead and JCVD himself, in eccentric character actor mode, playing the mentor. It was directed by John Stockwell, who did pretty good with IN THE BLOOD and some of his other movies, so when the screenwriter took over as director for the sequel that didn’t seem like a good sign to me.

I was so wrong! KICKBOXER: RETALIATION turned out even better than the first one, with much more ambitious and assured direction, including complex choreography with great long take camera work. Of course, writer/director Dimitri Logothetis wasn’t some screenwriter getting his first shot at directing – he’d had a long and unusual filmmaking history that started in ’80s b-movies, producing HARDBODIES 2 and directing SLAUGHTERHOUSE ROCK, and included the 1989 boxing documentary CHAMPIONS FOREVER. Incidentally he’s also a blackbelt in Kenpo karate, having been taught by Ed Parker (he says he got to train with Elvis three times).

Now Logothetis has reunited with Moussi for another action vehicle, not a remake but a sci-fi story he first tested out as a comic book. And since it has a crazy premise and a good supporting role for Nicolas Cage maybe more people will notice this time.

Okay, let’s get this out of the way: it’s called JIU JITSU. I was sure they would change that by the time they released it, but they stuck with it. If you’re the type of person who will be bothered that the fighting in the movie is not all (or even mostly, from what I can tell) jiu jitsu, please do me and yourself a favor and pretend it’s called SPACE-PUNCHER or something. Otherwise you will be frustrated.

But if I understand correctly the movie purports that jiu jitsu is the greatest martial art because it was given to us, basically, by ancient astronauts. Every six years when a comet passes the earth this alien fellow named Brax (Ryan Tarran, also stunt coordinator) comes through a portal by an ancient temple in Myanmar and challenges humans to fight him. They don’t have to win, but they have to fight, otherwise he will stick around and fuck shit up on earth. An ancient order of jiu jitsu fighters are always there to battle him, having long ago taught their predecessors jiu jitsu as the only thing badass enough to offer him a challenge.

Moussi plays Jake, who is introduced running through a jungle, dodging alien ninja stars until he falls off a cliff into water and is picked up by a fishing boat. After being rescued he doesn’t remember who he is or what’s up, raising the suspicions of the wife of the fisherman who sewed him up and the soldiers at the American base where she dumps him off. But the blanks start to be filled in after a guy named Kueng (Tony fucking Jaa!) shows up to bust him out of the base and reunite him with the rest of the crew.

One way this movie excels is a totally stacked cast of action people, and though most of them don’t get as much of a showcase as Moussi and Jaa, they all get chances to shine. You’ve got Frank Grillo (WOLF WARRIOR 2, POINT BLANK) as Harrigan, kind of an asshole who gets mad at Jake for his memory loss (maybe he just thinks it’s an excuse for cowardice). JuJu Chan (CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY, SAVAGE DOG) is Carmen, love interest but legit warrior. And I was excited to see Marrese Crump (WRONG SIDE OF TOWN, THE PROTECTOR 2) get another good supporting role right after stealing WELCOME TO SUDDEN DEATH. They all carry themselves like they know they’re the earth’s greatest warriors whether they’re getting in scuffles with the army or engaging in portal kombat. And they have distinct moves and weapons, like video game characters. Good shit.

For jiu jitsu legitimacy they have Rigan Machado (KICKBOXER 4, BRAZILIAN BRAWL, BEYOND THE RING) in there a little bit. Also among the military contingent you have Rick Yune (THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS, NINJA ASSASSIN, THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS) as a captain with a better idea of what’s going on than the others.

And then, of course, there’s Cage as a local weirdo called Wylie. Jake literally falls into his underground cave (a pretty nice pad with furniture and a piano) while running through the jungle, spars with him and then is taken under his crazy wing to prepare to fight Brax, or as Wylie calls him, “The poet warrior in the sci-fi sense. The space man.”

Cage has studied jiu jitsu and does get to role around a little, but I was more excited to see him switching off with a stunt double who does flips and stuff. Pretending Nicolas Cage can do flips is a joy I didn’t know I needed in my life. With his long hair, headband, beaded necklaces and (bath?)robe, carrying a sword-staff, he only has a blip or two of mega-acting, but his usual sense of wild-eyed humor makes for a lovable sensei character. My one complaint is that he offers only advice and not training montages.

Like most sci-fi on a budget like this, it’s more noticably cheap than its straight-martial-arts brethren. There are definitely some chintzy visual effects, and one unfortunate stylistic choice. Important filmmaking rule: if this is not a CREEPSHOW movie and you’re putting comic book transitions in it you have made a grave error, especially since you and I both know that moving a couple layers around in After Effects is no substitute for real animation.

But I should say, because this is not a given in a DTV sci-fi movie: Brax is not an alien disguised in human form. He has sort of a rubber space suit with a helmet with a blank window over the face which sometimes has a projection of sort of a lizard face. I appreciate that.

Though the FX are sometimes cheap, the movie is never lazy. Logothetis and cinematographer Gerardo Madrazo continue in RETALIATION’s spirit of playfulness in staging and shooting the action. There are even some Spike Lee style camera-mounted-in-front-of-the-actor’s-face shots. I like the way sometimes the camera will be following Jake or Keung and then be separated from them – they run into a house, or behind a wall, and the camera stays outside – and you can hear some commotion going on off screen and then a guy gets thrown through some boards or Keung smashes out of a gate knees-first.

The most show-offy scene switches to Jake’s POV for a while – you see his feet and hands fighting people, but also Keung will be fighting someone nearby, or he’ll be somewhere else and then run in and help. It’s very video-gamey, but also really cool. You get to see what it would look like to be in a big brawl with Tony Jaa on your side.

I guess this photo from the IMDb gallery explains how they shot some of that stuff.

The camera is more mobile and close than I usually prefer during fights, but it’s cool the way they do it, hovering around to put you in the middle of the fight, but frequently stepping back to get a better look, and holding the shots long enough to show a bunch of consecutive moves. It works well.

It’s not hard to imagine getting excited about a PREDATOR-meets-MORTAL-KOMBAT-with-Nicolas-Cage-as-Raiden movie and then finding it only sporadically amusing. But I think JIU JITSU is exactly as fun as that premise sounds, and deserves. It’s a joyfully absurd sci-fi-action romp with colorful characters and a wealth of cleverly executed action set pieces – a nice mix of fun comic book premise, high quality fight choreography and a surplus of filmmaking elbow grease.


JIU JITSU will be transported to digital platforms this Friday, November 20th.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 18th, 2020 at 10:03 am and is filed under Action, Reviews, Science Fiction and Space Shit. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

13 Responses to “Jiu Jitsu”

  1. Good to hear that it’s good, but I also fear that it will be rejected by the general audience, because they expected something more of a cinematical Reddit meme, with that premise and Nic Cage.

  2. I need more weird stuff like this that takes chances but still knows what it’s doing! Maybe not always successful, but ambitious. Looking forward to this!

  3. “Portal kombat” I don’t know whether to give you a slow clap or a pinch.

  4. So I did not like this movie. Here is positives and negatives

    Positives

    1. Cyprus is a really interesting location to shoot. There is some beautiful scenery there that the director puts to good use.

    2. Nicolas Cage is good.

    Negatives

    1. It’s boring and I’m not the only one who has agreed me with. This thing has no life what so ever and the reason is
    2. Alan Moussi is a charisma vacuum. He shows no range, no quirks, no even attempts at acting like he has lost his memory. Nothing. I hate this guy. I barely made it through the first Kickboxer remake because of him. You know it’s bad that anytime somebody says his name Jake (and they say it a lot) that my head automatically went to “from state farm”
    3. The sound design is terrible. You don’t ever really feel any of the hits. Plus the fights all seem a little slower than normal. I watched last night a movie called I Am Vengeance: Retaliation. It has even less plot than Jiu Jitsu but all the fights in that one had zip and energy. It helps that Stu Bennet has more charisma in his pinky toe than Mousi has in his entire body.
    4. The visual effects are even more atrocious than Vern lets on. I get why they use CGI gun flashes but this one was more ridiculous than normal.

    Here is the thing, though, I kinda blame seeing this on the big screen. I had a similar reaction to Triple Threat, even though that one is a lot better. Seeing something that normally gets released on the small screen in a movie theater gives it expectations that makes it hard to live up to. Every bad thing is just ampflied when everything is so big.

    I look at Beyond Skyline. While that doesn’t have as many fights with the aliens as Jiu Jitsu does, the fighting is 1000 times better. Maybe silat is just a more interesting fight style than Jiu Jitsu I don’t know. Frank Grillo is also way better in this but his role in Jiu Jitsu was to be a dick and enjoy a free vacation to Cyprus.

    And look I’m sure most of you will end up liking this and that would be awesome. It’s much better with more people liking it than not.

    At least I get Skyline 3 next month.

  5. I can’t believe movies like this are finally getting a theatrical release but you have to risk actual death to see them.

  6. I know what you’re saying but also my experience so far in the one time i’ve been to a theater since the Pandemic hit is that nobody is really going to movie theaters so it’s not really as dangerous as like going to your friends house for Thanksgiving or whatever.

  7. Winchester, I wouldn’t really call this movie ambitious.

  8. I was somewhat kidding. I wouldn’t be able to see it anyway, because movie theaters have never re-opened here, and also Alamo doesn’t have any theaters here (I’ve been told they never will because of something to do with the liquor laws).

    I disagree with you – this is an ambitious low budget movie. Normally a movie of this budget doesn’t have any sequences half as involved as the POV one, for example.

  9. Alien being drops in once every 6 years and takes on Earth’s mightiest fighters. This could have been a perfect 30min action short, tediously stretched to movie length with a ludicrous and barely coherent script.

    There’s an Army Intelligence lady who exits the movie as abruptly as she enters it, an asshole “Comic Relief” interpreter and I’m still figuring out who the hell Rick Yune’s character was.

    God bless Nic Cage, whose every droll and sardonic line reading is an admonishment to the likes of Moussi and Chan who exhibit epic levels of Bad Acting. I consider Mr Cage as having fulfilled his penance and hereby forgive him for GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, TRESPASS, STOLEN, OUTCAST, SEASON OF THE WITCH and LEFT BEHIND.

  10. I knew i wasn’t the only one that saw OUTCAST!

  11. I was thinking more of how the film plot and mechanisims to get us from point A to point B wasn’t very ambitious but that first person part was pretty ambitious if not completely successful.

  12. Japanese Jiu Jitsu is more standup focused than Brazilian – so there may be elements of that referred to in the name. Otherwise this would be pretty boring for most viewers who don’t appreciate the glory of Demian Maia.

  13. Who would’ve thought a film with cool looking aliens, martial arts, Tony Jaa, Frank Grillo and some decent special effects would be over shadowed by Nicolas Cage playing Dennis Hopper Ala Apocalypse Now?

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