Jiu Jitsu capitalizes on some playful camerawork and Nicolas Cage’s idiosyncratic presence to transcend its DTV trappings.
Only in the realm of DTV could something so perfectly silly as Jiu Jitsu exist, and comfortably at that. A wily mash-up of Power Rangers, Predator, and Mortal Kombat packed with memorable martial artist performers (not to mention a now de-rigueur wild-out from Nicolas Cage), shoestring-budget set design and visual effects, and sturdy, inventive camerawork and fight choreography, it’s the most fun you’ll have on video (at least until the third installment of Liam O’Donnell’s bugfuck Skyline series comes out next month).
Martial artist and former stuntman Alain Moussi plays Jake, who wakes up with a bad case of amnesia only to be captured by American troops who immediately suspect him of some sort of covert skullduggery. He’s busted out of captivity by a motley group of warriors played by a veritable horn of plenty of DTV staples (including but not limited to Frank Grillo, Rick Yune, Juju Chan, and Tony Jaa). They’re led by Wylie (Cage), who explains that their little group is dedicated to battling an alien monster that comes through a dimensional portal in a nearby Burmese temple every six years and demands hand-to-hand combat lest he destroy the planet. Sure, fine, let’s go.
Moussi isn’t much of an actor but has a genuinely affable physical presence, and over his last few films (including the rebooted Kickboxer series) he has certainly grown as a camera-ready martial artist. Still, he can’t quite compete with seasoned players like Grillo or Jaa, even though director Dimitri Logothetis does a terrific job of covering the seams with some goofy stylistic tics. Particularly amusing is a first-person faux-long take from Jake’s POV as he follows Tony Jaa across rooftops and into battles with foot soldiers, a combination video game cutscene/you-are-there gag that makes you feel like you’re Jaa’s sidekick for a few minutes. On the flip side, the bargain-basement visual effects certainly could be better, but their obvious cheapness lends its own specific charm, making the whole thing look like a relatively expensive vintage Power Rangers episode. And the monster itself, a creature called Brax played by stuntman Ryan Tarran in a very neat rubber suit, only adds to that distinct impression.
But, of course, the real MVP here is Cage, who in his brief screentime manages to make his ancient mystical warrior completely indelible, a combination of Yoda and Dennis Hopper’s strung out photographer stuck in Kurtz’s compound in Apocalypse Now, but boasting a samurai sword and sarcastic demeanor. It’s a performance that won’t do anything to deflect the endless meme-ification of a tremendous and incredibly committed working actor, but one can at least take solace that Cage’s choices are always idiosyncratic ones. His presence alone here manages to take Jiu Jitsu from what might’ve otherwise been a self-serious slog to a place far more adventurously weird.