Even with a legitimate all-star cast of martial artists, this action-science fiction story is too poorly told, choreographed and shot to fight anything except boredom.
- 🥋As a hybrid of The Matrix's Morpheus and Dennis Hopper from Apocalypse Now, Nicolas Cage gives one of his great gonzo check-cashing performances.
- 🥋Combining ideas from Mortal Kombat and Predator is a good idea - this just isn't the way to do it.
- 🥋A combination of lackluster choreography and wildly overcranked cinematography renders action scenes repetitive and incomprehensible.
- 🥋Stuntman turned actor Alain Moussi vitally lacks the charisma required to sell this story of an amnesiac searching for the hero within.
Think about every action movie you’ve ever seen, and how many of those you gave a pass for bad acting, a dumb story choice, or production values that failed to live up to a storyteller’s vision. Jiu Jitsu is a movie that eliminates the stuff that earned your goodwill, combines all of the things that you forgave into one giant stew of badness, and adds a few dozen more including bad cinematography, and fatally, bad fight choreography. Evidently emboldened by resuscitating the Kickboxer franchise, director and cowriter Dimitri Logothetis assembled what should be an impressive cast of martial artists around stunt man and “actor” Alain Moussi for a science fiction-themed action film combining elements of Predator and Mortal Kombat — without the budget or imagination of either — into a wooden, inert, nonsensical slog that not even a spirited check-cashing performance by Nicolas Cage can redeem.
Moussi (Kickboxer: Vengeance) plays Jake Barnes, a soldier who escapes the clutches of unseen adversaries to land in the waters off of Burma with no idea who he is or how he got there. Shephered to a nearby military encampment by locals who don’t know what to do with the towering foreigner, Jake is incarcerated and interrogated by an intelligence officer, Myra (Marie Avgeropolous), who’s spearheading a mission to investigate strange phenomena seemingly associated with the passing of a meteor that appears every six years. But before Myra can unlock any of the details hidden in Jake’s head, he’s rescued by a mysterious warrior named Keung (Tony Jaa) and reunited with a small group of fighters trained to protect Earth from a deadly extraterrestrial force.
As he ventures into the Burmese jungle with his well-trained cohorts, including no-nonsense bladed weapon specialist Harrigan (Frank Grillo) and the graceful Carmen (JuJu Chan), whose attention suggests that they shared more than the same training, Jake begins to regain his memory, and learn more about the group’s plan — which he actually conceived. But even as eccentric hermit Wylie (Cage) attempts to help him remember who he is and understand the danger they all face — and the stakes if they fail — Jake must confront his responsibility to humanity, and decide if he’s up to the challenge that he forgot that he already accepted.
The TL;DR version of this plot is “a guy with amnesia learns he’s supposed to fight a chameleonic space alien who returns to earth once every six years to fight its greatest warriors,” but Logothetis’ reach exceeds his grasp with a concept that steals from the two movies above as well as The Matrix, Power Rangers, The Bourne Identity and probably dozens of contest-based martial arts films. Particularly with Grillo, Cage, Jaa, Chan and others populating the supporting cast, Moussi is woefully miscast as an ass-kicking hunk we’re supposed to care deeply about, and burdening him with the challenge of making memory loss something sympathetic or compelling is just plain unfair — to him and the audience. During the first half of the movie, there are at least three or four reversals suggesting Jake may be the hero or the villain as these different groups attempt to detain and direct him, but Moussi reacts to every new development with the same wide-eyed incredulity (and no new actual information to clarify the advancing plot).
Prior to Cage’s arrival, most of the film’s dialogue is a variation of questions that seem determined not to find answers — “who is this guy?” “What does he know?” “He doesn’t know, does he?” “Don’t you know what your own plan is?” When Cage arrives, however, he storms the proceedings like a combination of Morpheus from The Matrix — lots of “let yourself be what you are” advice — and a cocaine-fever rambling Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. Paired with a stunt man to perform his fight sequences, Cage almost steers the film into a safer tongue-in-cheek zone, helpful when the alien enemy looks like one of those 1980s Super Naturals action figures with a face that’s a hologram and fights like a Power Rangers villain.
But it’s hard to know who failed worse, action director and stunt choreographer Supoj Khaowwong (The Expendables 2) or Gerardo Madrazo (Kickboxer: Retaliation), in creating the film’s overlong, tedious, suspenseless action sequences. Tony Jaa may be one of the most disappointing martial arts stars to emerge from modern cinema, but he deserves better than his introduction scene where plucky, faceless opponents literally wait a few feet from one another while he halfheartedly goes through choreography to get to each one of them (the CGI gunfire that conveniently nudges him forward also isn’t convincing).
Madrazo shoots each fight with the seeming ethos that Zack Snyder’s impulse to use speed ramping is right, but woefully underused, so every slightly bigger kick or punch is emphasized with a pause before it lands. If repeated somersaults to capture flips weren’t too much to deprive viewers from watching gifted martial artists cycle through their choreography, he shoots one sequence in which Jake indiscriminately adopts the point of view of the camera, jumps into frame, and goes back again to no effect but to make one wonder either why a fighter would employ a specific tactic or why a filmmaker would use that angle to document it.
While it might be unfair to observe how cheaply this film was obviously made, what matters is how they utilized their limited resources, and none of the film’s problems come from its literal comic book transitions or its conspicuously mediocre visual effects (the alien’s regenerative abilities would have been more effective with one of those He-Man action figures whose chest rotates to show “battle damage”). I guess what I’m wondering is, was this just a paycheck project for its pedigreed cast? Or were they promised better opportunities to showcase their acting or martial arts skills — especially opposite Moussi, god love him — than ended up on screen? Because truthfully, the idea of an alien contender coming down to Earth to test its greatest fighters isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever heard. But there’s no good reason why the guy who is first line to fight, and who came up with the plan everybody’s using to beat that alien, spends two thirds of the movie with no idea who he or anybody else is. And ultimately, that’s only the start of a laundry list of reasons why Jiu Jitsu is plain awful. It’s just too bad that viewers couldn’t come away from the film with the ability to forget it afterwards.
Jiu Jitsu will be available on VOD November 20th, 2020.
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