Movie Review: The Art of Self-Defense

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R |

Director: Riley Stearns

by Jason Koenigsberg

Now is an all-time high for nostalgia with all of the remakes, reboots, and sequels at the multiplex. The Art of Self-Defense looks to capitalize on this in an artistic way by having the film take place about 25 years ago when renting movies and buying CD’s was commonplace. The 80’s and 90’s were a popular time for Karate to be in pop culture with entertainments such as The Karate Kid, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Jesse Eisenberg plays a nebbish accountant who turns to martial arts after being a victim of a crime. He gets mugged and afterward is afraid to leave his apartment unless he has some way of protecting himself. 

The opening shot is Jesse Eisenberg sitting at a diner nervously rocking back and forth in his seat as a couple walks into the diner speaking French and they order coffee. He has a fascination with French culture but during the film, for reasons that should not be mentioned, it gets replaced with an admiration for German culture. He is meant to look like he is in prison juxtaposed next to the blinds in the window. Also, there is an early scene where Jesse Eisenberg goes to purchase a gun but due to the waiting period, he stumbles into a Karate dojo led by a Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and becomes captivated by the discipline and actual art of self-defense. It is not quite clear whether the movie The Art of Self-Defense is anti-gun or pro-gun with its message and honestly it does not matter. The two scenes that involve a gun are the two funniest scenes in the entire film. The ending is guaranteed to shock and serve as a cattleprod and jolt the audience in their seat with one of the most unpredictable and hilarious moments. The ending makes the movie worth the price of admission. 

The Art of Self-Defense does have some dry spells in between its compelling moments. There are not many laugh out loud scenes but when they occur they land perfectly. There are also some very violent moments that come off as unrealistic but if one can suspend their disbelief The Art of Self-Defense rewards them with brutal black comedy.  The ending is the best aspect of the film but it also works because of the odd, off-kilter performances. Jesse Eisenberg is no newcomer to this type of role, he has practically made his career playing these types of characters but Alessandro Nivola’s Sensei has dark layers and surprises with his character and they work seamlessly because of his believable performance. The other performance that deserves heaps of praise is Imogen Poots as the Sensei’s lone female student. Maybe the feminist message in The Art of Self-Defense is too heavy-handed but if it works for the viewer that is due to the fact that they completely buy into Imogen Poots and her deadpan delivery. The Art of Self-Defense is not perfect and a good chunk of the first hour may have the audience questioning where the film is going and why they are still watching it. The last twenty minutes certainly make up for the long gaps where the movie meanders and this film definitely has a razor-sharp edge and a dark and unexpected direction into bizarre humor that hits the bullseye when it needs to. A savage example of what movies are capable of for those willing to tread in dangerous waters which sadly very few films nowadays do. 

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