Meet Nicolas Cage’s Crazy, Alien-Fighting Samurai Sensei
The wacky film from Dimitri Logothetis sees a blade-wielding Cage—along with Frank Grillo and Tony Jaa—take on Earth-destroying aliens.
Many action movies are flippantly likened to video games, but few have ever earned that comparison more than Jiu Jitsu. A series of Street Fighter-esque showdowns tethered together by the type of plot that would barely pass muster in a ‘90s coin-op, Dimitri Logothetis’ film tries to overtly embrace its print-based roots—it’s an adaptation of a comic series penned by the writer/director, and features transitional interludes that resemble hand-drawn panels. Yet in both style and substance, it’s truly indebted to arcade fighting hits that prize complicated button-mashing combos over serious characterizations and drama.
Oh, and it’s also an aliens-versus-martial-artists saga in which Nicolas Cage plays a “crazy” sensei with serious blade-wielding skills.
That description might make Jiu Jitsu (on VOD Nov. 20) sound like an entertainingly mindless B-movie extravaganza, but frustratingly, Cage is almost totally wasted by Logothetis’ sci-fi beat-‘em-up, as are fellow genre luminaries Frank Grillo and Tony Jaa. Sporting a scraggly beard and a giant sword, Cage’s Wylie lives in an underground clay chamber deep in the Burmese jungle, where he apparently spends his time doing, well, it’s not quite clear. What is obvious is that Cage has been hired to juice up the marquee personality quotient of this low-rent affair. To that end, he does his part, cracking wise with manic “attitude” while providing sage advice for the material’s nominal protagonist, who’s such a blank slate that virtually anything Cage does—which, admittedly, is very little—resounds as colorful by contrast.
Before Cage’s second-rate Obi-Wan Kenobi materializes, Jiu Jitsu focuses on Jake (Alain Moussi), who after fleeing a mysterious attack is recovered in the ocean by Wylie and a local Burmese fisherman, nursed back to health, and then brought to the nearby American army base, where soldiers are investigating excessive plutonium levels. There, Jake is interrogated by Myra (Marie Avgeropoulos), but to no avail, since he’s an amnesiac. Before he can regain his memory, Jake is saved by Kueng (Jaa), whose name I only know from the credits; Jaa, a fantastic martial-arts brawler, is merely asked to play himself, and given no more than two lines of dialogue during the course of this adventure. Even in that limited capacity, he shows off a few sweet moves as he rescues Jake from army captivity and reunites him with the rest of his comrades, who include love interest Carmen (JuJu Chan) and squad leader Harrigan (Grillo).
Detailing the ins and outs of Jiu Jitsu’s narrative is pointless, since despite its initial convolutions, it turns out to be a rather straightforward—and illogical—affair. Jake is a member of a team of lethal warriors tasked with brawling with an extraterrestrial killer known as Brax (Ryan Tarran), who appears every six years through a temple portal activated by a comet, and who bestowed the world with jiu-jitsu. Jake, everyone believes, is the chosen one destined to finally take Brax down. This is relayed in somber tones that don’t make it any less preposterous. Brax wears a bunch of futuristic armor and a helmet with a smokey white faceplate that occasionally clears to reveal his absurd animated-alien face. Between his cloaking ability, his heat-signature vision, and the fact that he’s hunting human prey in the jungle, Brax is basically a third-generation photocopy of the Predator.
With his spiky hair, army pants-and-T-shirt attire, and fondness for flip kicks, Jake is akin to a live-action version of Street Fighter’s Guile (whom Jean-Claude Van Damme played in 1994’s film version of the popular game). That connection is underscored by the fact that Moussi previously starred alongside the Muscles from Brussels in Logothetis’ Kickboxer: Vengeance and Kickboxer: Retaliation, although any similarities end there, since Moussi is a vapid non-presence whose only real skill is throwing punches. That he routinely does, in elaborately choregraphed skirmishes staged with lucid intensity. Yet even during those centerpieces, Logothetis’ look-at-me aesthetics strain far too hard to deliver a “wow” factor—a recurring, gimmicky rotating shot quickly wears out its welcome, and the flip-flopping POV of an early sequence (one second, we’re seeing what Jake sees; another second, the camera is a disembodied presence) simply makes no logical sense.
Jiu Jitsu inverts the typical fighting-game format by having different male and female combatants take on the same big boss, all of it leading to a final battle between Jake and the intergalactic fiend. Alas, there’s nothing thrilling about any of it. There is, however, something seriously embarrassing about Eddie Steeples’ sub-Mike Epps comic-relief routine, as well as something disheartening about watching Grillo earn a paycheck for a cardboard-cutout role whose only notable moment involves his grunt giving the middle finger to Brax. Everyone has to eat, but there have to be better opportunities out there for a charismatic and physical performer like Grillo. That’s also true with regards to Jaa, who snaps limbs and delivers a couple of trademark elbows to the head, but otherwise registers as a total non-factor.
Only Cage seems to be trying in Jiu Jitsu, striving to invigorate his character with a modicum of gonzo energy. Unfortunately, aside from exhibiting impressive hand-to-hand combat maneuvers, and eventually engaging Brax in a prolonged clash, he’s given so little to work with that the effort goes for naught. He’s a stock mentor whose secret identity is revealed in the film’s sole laugh-out-loud moment, and the fact that he nonetheless shines opposite Moussi—a stoic slab of square-jawed muscle—is mostly an indictment of the latter, whose performance doesn’t manage a single dimension.
Midway through Jiu Jitsu, Wylie tells Jake, “Whatever happens, just remember the one thing you always have with jiu-jitsu: leverage.” Good luck figuring out what that means. Mystery abounds in Logothetis’ film, but it’s the sort that comes from bedrock incompetence. Who are these heroic warriors? No idea. How did they learn about Brax and the portal that brings him to Earth? Got me. When did they train to become jiu-jitsu masters? Whatever. Why don’t they call in reinforcements to help aid their prophesy-foretold cause? Shrug.
Which, in the end, is the main response elicited by Jiu Jitsu, a film with an out-there premise (and a game Hollywood icon) that lands with a leaden thud.