The Nicolas Cage Sci-Fi Action Movie 'Jiu Jitsu' Is a Ridiculous Good Time
A little Cage goes a long way in this goofy alien throwdown.
In 1996 and 1997, Nicolas Cage went on a three-movie run that remains virtually unmatched in the realm of action blockbuster-dom: Michael Bay's Alcatraz break-in extravaganza The Rock, Simon West's plane hijacking opus Con Air, and John Woo's reconstructive surgery parable Face/Off. These three films represent the height of post-Die Hard '90s big-budget filmmaking, an era of gleefully dumb high-concept premises, elaborate stunt set-pieces, and winking humor. These movies are slick, loud, and obnoxious. Cage, having then recently won an Oscar for 1995's Leaving Las Vegas, was the perfect actor to both ground and accentuate the rampant absurdity.
Nobody is going to confuse Jiu Jitsu, Cage's latest action movie offering about a team of mysterious warriors facing off against a Predator-like alien, with one of the actor's '90s hits. It's not produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and it's not trying to wow you with state-of-the-art visual effects. Instead, you can quickly spot the many ways the co-writer and director, Kickboxer: Retaliation filmmaker Dimitri Logothetis, attempted to possibly save some cash. (There's CG blood galore.) And Cage, playing an Obi-Wan Kenobi-like figure, doesn't really make his presence known until about 40 minutes into the movie.
The movie's "elite warriors must defeat an ancient alien invader" plot, adapted from a comic book by Logothetis and writer Jim McGrath, is a nonsensical mush of Stargate, The Bourne Identity, and Predator. Moussi plays Jake Barnes, an incredibly muscular man who gets chased by some deadly blades, falls in the ocean, gets picked up by a fisherman, and dumped at a U.S. military compound, where he's held for questioning. Jake can't remember who he is or why he's in Burma, but he quickly makes an important discovery: He has a gift for beating up soldiers.
Eventually, Tony Jaa shows up to free Jake, and sets off the first of the movie's winningly staged fight sequences, which involves running and punching more soldiers. Occasionally, the camera switches to an annoying first-person P.O.V. mode, like something out of Hardcore Henry, but, with little rhyme or reason, the approach gets abandoned. It's just that kind of movie. Ideas get picked up and toyed with—for example, little animated comic-book interstitials appear between scenes—but then get tossed away.
Luckily, Jiu Jitsu gets the most important aspects of a junky movie like this right. Logothetis shoots most of the hand-to-hand combat during daylight, allowing the viewer to get a clean look at these talented fighters (and their stunt doubles) practicing their craft. Even if the cast spends most of their time battling an alien in a gray body-suit with a smoky blue helmet, the choreography is brisk and exciting. You don't watch a movie like Jiu Jitsu because you want to unpack the mythology of why an alien creature travels millions of miles across space through a portal every six years and challenges a guy to a brawl. (That's what Prometheus is for.) You just want to watch the ensuing fist fight.
Most importantly, when Cage arrives on screen, he's given plenty of room to cook. "No one ever gets what I mean," his character says at one point early on, and he's onto something. Lines like "get off my piano" are given the same absurd spin he put on "alpacas" earlier this year in the far weirder (and better) H.P. Lovecraft adaptation Color Out of Space. He's enjoying himself, wielding a giant sword and constructing little boats out of newspapers. If he can't always be making movies as out there as 2018's hallucinatory Mandy, this is a good zone for Cage to be in. At a time when even enormous super-hero blockbusters are encroaching on VOD territory, Jiu Jitsu is a valuable reminder that a proudly small movie can still pack a hard punch.
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