By Mark Saldana
Rating: 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)
This is a movie that truly captivated me and made me laugh at the same time. I definitely have a penchant for dark, twisted and quirky conedies that provoke their audiences, and this film certainly fits the bill. Not really a crowd-pleaser, The Art of Self-Defense is a piece that charms and entertains, but turns pitch black at the flip of a switch. That change is a rather risky one to attempt, but writer/director Riley Stearns manages to pull it off well.
Jesse Eisenberg stars as Casey Davies, a meek and soft-spoken accountant who lives a mostly uneventful life. On one life-changing day, Casey gets mugged by a band of motorcycle-riding thugs and ends up in the hospital. Shaken and traumatized by this event, he seeks out self-defense options in case a similar incident occurs. Casey eventually comes across a karate school where he is intrigued by a charismatic sensei (Alessandro Nivola). As he proceeds with the training, he soon learns to find the inner strength to assert himself. However, he also discovers that his beloved school has a dark and sinister side.
I must say that I was genuinely wowed by this movie. Not only did I find myself laughing heartily and sometimes hysterically, I was also blown away by the film’s audacity and unflinching style when it comes to the violence and dark moments. It is a pendulous shift that works mostly well and makes this film one of the more unique movies of the year. Riley Stearns has written an intelligent script that satirizes toxic masculinity and violence in our culture. It is definitely a sharp and biting commentary that doesn’t so much take on martial arts, but rather critiques a real toxicity that can sully the ideals of that philosophy and sport.
Jesse Eisenberg absolutely shines in the role of timid Casey Davies. He gives a wonderfully nuianced turn of a character who struggles to find courage in the face of peril. Alessandro Nivola also impresses as the confident, charming, but seemingly pragmatic Sensei. The movie also stars Imogen Poots as the children’s teacher Anna. Her straightforward approach to the character feels perfectly at home in this film.
So it is pretty obvious at this point that I really love this movie. A friend asked me to describe the film recently and I said that it is like Cobra Kai meets Fight Club. So if my review, and this description sounds like one’s jam, then this a movie not to miss.