June 2022

Jiu Jitsu (2020)

DIRECTOR: Dimitri Logothetis

CAST: Alain Moussi, Nicolas Cage, Frank Grillo, Tony Jaa, JuJu Chan, Marie Avgeropoulos, Rick Yune


Every once in a while, I suppose a bit like slowing down when passing a car crash, I get the strange compulsion to review something truly terrible, whose amateurish ineptitude begs the question of who funded this in the first place. The inappropriately-named Jiu Jitsu (inappropriate because, as many a disgruntled Jiu Jitsu practitioner can tell you, it’s light on any actual Jiu Jitsu) is such a movie, taking the most ridiculous premise imaginable and using it to string together a series of clumsily-choreographed martial arts fight scenes interspersed with a bargain basement rip-off of Predator, all with bad acting, worse writing, and distractingly excessive directorial flourishes. One is better off watching a stunt/fight demo reel on YouTube and dodging the tediously awful filmmaking.

There’s no way to explain the threadbare and colossally silly plot in a way that makes any sense, so here it is. Every six years, an alien named Brax (Ryan Tarran), who taught the human race Jiu Jitsu (!) returns via a portal created by a comet (don’t ask) to face off against a band of “chosen ones”. If Brax is satisfied by a duel with a worthy champion, he goes home for the next six years. But if the humans are afraid to face him, he sticks around and starts doing his best impression of The Predator. The “chosen one” turns out to be the unimpressively-named Jake (Alain Moussi), but there’s a problem: he’s got amnesia, and has no idea what’s going on. Eventually, Jake is taken prisoner by a military unit (led by Marie Avgeropoulos and Rick Yune) but is rescued by a band of Jiu Jitsu warriors (including Frank Grillo, Tony Jaa, and JuJu Chan) and an eccentric loner called Wylie (Nicolas Cage) who try to lead him to an inevitable showdown with Brax.

If the premise of a Jiu Jitsu-obsessed alien forcing humans to fight him doesn’t make a whole lot of sense on the page, rest assured that Jiu Jitsu makes even less sense onscreen. If Brax is hungry to go mano-a-mano with a worthy champion, why then does he spend most of the movie hunting hapless humans under cloak of invisibility? As well as I could figure, it’s because the filmmakers wanted to rip off Predator. The movie looks like it cost about a thousand bucks (allegedly it had a budget of $25 million but it’s hard to imagine where it went, unless the simple answer is “Nicolas Cage”) and was filmed by some friends in the jungle, and like it barely had a script. Characters appear and disappear at random. Our ostensible lead Jake’s—-who is pretty much the most useless character in the movie and spends most of his screentime standing around looking befuddled and barely reacting to anything—amnesia contributes nothing to the plot except an excuse for exposition, and the script is so haphazardly written that despite knowing this all along, everyone around him continually reacts to this as if it’s a new shocking revelation they’ve just now discovered every five minutes. There’s apparently meant to be some kind of romantic past connection between Jake and JuJu Chan’s Carmen, but it’s so thinly-developed as to be almost laughable (that, and it’s hard for anyone to try to imply a connection with an inexpressive block of wood like Alain Moussi). Who is Wylie, the obligatory Eccentric Nicolas Cage Character? The movie never really bothers to explain who he is or what he’s doing here, or why everyone has to trek—seemingly with no great sense of urgency—to a Burmese temple, or what Brax is doing this whole time. And this isn’t even getting to the part where everyone drinks Burmese alcohol and performs medical procedures on each other (!).

One might be tempted to forgive a (to put it generously) thin plot, if a movie called Jiu Jitsu actually supplied impressive martial arts fight sequences, but it’s not likely to blow anyone’s socks off there either. Oh, there’s no shortage of fight scenes, and some moves, courtesy of casting actual martial artists and stuntmen like Tony Jaa and JuJu Chan (for Nicolas Cage’s part, we noticeably cut away to long-distance shots to obscure the unsubtle switch between Cage and a fight double) but the action is clumsily-choreographed, not helped by director Dimitri Logothetis (whose previous dubious claim to fame was Kickboxer: Vengeance, starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Alain Moussi) throwing in various directorial flourishes that are seemingly meant to give the action variety and immersion but succeed only in being distracting and incoherent. The point-of-view switches, with no rhyme or reason, between a third-person view and suddenly being directly from the perspective of one of the fighters (during which the fight moves are conspicuously awkward, as if the cameraman is trying to fight without dropping his camera), to randomly spinning in a circle for no apparent reason other than apparently Logothetis went to film school and really wants you to know it. What little CGI is thrown in is distractingly cheap, like everyone dodging bad CGI “alien” ninja stars (it doesn’t help that the actors oftentimes seem to forget they’re supposed to be reacting to the imaginary CGI weapons flying around them). Perhaps worst of all, the pace manages to be sluggish (a damning indictment of a movie basically consisting of a string of fight scenes haphazardly strung together) and meandering, with everyone taking forever to get anywhere, and the tone is dour and serious, denying us even the tongue-in-cheek camp that might have raised this to “so bad it’s good” territory. Instead, it’s just an amateurish slog.

Jiu Jitsu |Teaser Trailer

While Nicolas Cage is the biggest “name” onhand (although his glory days are far behind him, as evidenced by the fact that he regularly appears in stuff like this), he actually has a fairly small role (getting the “and Nicolas Cage” billing at the bottom of the cast). The ostensible lead is Alain Moussi, a stuntman-turned-actor who proves he should have stuck to his first job and wears the same confused expression the entire movie (maybe the amnesia was partly so Moussi didn’t have to do a lot of “acting”, though what precious little is required of him here is still too much). For our supposed “chosen one”, Jake is pretty much the most useless character in the movie. As for Cage, he eventually shows up, looking and acting stoned and haggard, and utters a few oddball one-liners, but doesn’t go weird or crazy enough to inject any life into the proceedings. While Cage is well-known by now for this kind of “anything for a paycheck” dreck, it’s a little sad to actually recognize a couple other actors, like Frank Grillo (who was the fight trainer in Warrior, a secondary Captain America villain, and the hero of the Purge sequels), Rick Yune (the villain in Olympus Has Fallen), or Marie Avgeropoulos (one of the stars of the television series The 100), who you’d hope could get better roles than this. About the most that can be said for anyone else is that Tony Jaa and JuJu Chan acquit themselves capably in the fight scenes (unsurprisingly, considering they’re accomplished martial artists).

Perhaps the most disappointing thing about a movie pitting humans against a Jiu Jitsu-obsessed alien is that it can’t even be enjoyed on a “so bad it’s good” level. Not even Nicolas Cage is allowed to act goofy enough. A little self-awareness of its own colossal silliness might have made Jiu Jitsu a guilty pleasure. Alas, perhaps worse than being laughably amateurish, it’s also just plain boring.