Best known for reimagining 1989’s Kickboxer with two storied back-to-back reboots, filmmaker Dimitri Logothetis segways into the comic book genre for the first time, adapting Acme Rocket Fuel’s in-house IP, Jiu Jitsu. Teeming with action-heavy talent per usual, the film rejoins Logothetis with Kickboxer Vengeance and Kickboxer Retaliation star Alain Moussi, having since escalated from stunt performance to achieving leading man status for the martial arts niche.
It’s not too long before the film’s biggest players join the fray setting our story in Burma, namely Nicolas Cage who appears briefly in one of the film’s opening moments following an eruptive chase sequence opener that leaves Moussi’s character injured, unconscious, and floating in the water. Pulled to safety by a farm couple and escorted to a nearby Army base, our protagonist is treated, and sooner interrogated by Army intel officer Myra (Marie Avgeropoulos) who tries to mitigate whether or not she can trust him.
In the scenes that follow, our lead manages to reawaken his fighting prowess and is suddenly whisked away by Kueng (Tony Jaa), a hooded warrior who ambushes the facility, finds him and addresses him as Jake. When Keung brings Jake and they regroup together with other members of their team, comprised of Harrigan (Frank Grillo), Carmen (Juju Chan) and Forbes (Marrese Crump), it becomes painfully clear that Jake still doesn’t remember the events that occurred prior to when the story first takes off, save for the fact that they’re currently on a mission to hunt something down that moves fast and deadly, and whatever it is, the Army is less than ready to handle it.
Enter Brax (Ryan Tarran), an intergalactic bully with a penchant for fighting as a metric to determine every six years whether or not it gets to destroy Earth and mankind. With Brax already in the midst of a killing spree, a skirmish between Brax and the Army sends Jake tumbling down a hole and going toe-to-toe against a puckish recluse named Wylie (Nicolas Cage), seemingly yet another figure in Jake’s circle who seems to know more about him than he does about everything else, and joins in moments later with Harrigan and the rest of the team from earlier to trek to their Buddhist temple base while helping Jake catch up on current events; As it turns out, the team has less than a day whilst racing against a passing comet, to beat Brax and either send him back into the portal from whence it came – or kill him, before it closes.
There’s no question as to the hard work that comes with putting together an action film, and the kind of talent and tenacity it takes to perform action sequences that can cohese a story together; Fortunately for a film like Jiu Jitsu, fans will get a film that thrives on fan service, with scenes loaded with explosive action enough to whet the appetite, and palpable performances by much of its cast, including and especially Cage who’s largely been at the forefront of this film’s promo campaign since the first leaked image of him standing opposite an obscure character while holding a sword.
For fans of Alain Moussi, while that may not necessarily bode as problematic aside from seeing Jiu Jitsu as nothing short of an exhilirating martial arts extravaganza after the Kickboxer reboots, it’s an issue, nonetheless. Moussi’s limited acting range makes him barely noticeable apart from his massive physical screen caliber and action movie presence, and it speaks ardently to the inept handling by Logothetis who, between all three of Moussi’s movies so far, seems more focused on martial arts fan service and guaranteeing name talent for his investors than fleshing out Moussi’s genuine potential.
It’s at this stage that the only people carrying this film next to its action and spectacle, are performances by Avgeropoulos, in addition to Cage, Jaa and the rest of the main line up, including the team of alien fighters – each skilled with their own abilities. Grillo does amply well in the role of knife-wielding blade savant, Harrigan despite looking visibly like he’d rather just keep the plot moving right up until his cheeky two-fingered departure near the end of the film.
Chan, who’s been an emerging talent in the West following her roles in Wu Assassins and Yuen Woo-Ping’s Crouching Tiger sequel, makes her outing here in the role of Carmen, whose romantic connection with Jake is explored in only a few scenes. She uses a small variety of tools in her arsenal when battling both Brax and soldiers in the area, including a pair of nunchucks and a gauntlet she uses to shoot explosive-tipped arrows. Crump and Jaa reunite once more following their roles in Jaa’s The Protector 2, now back together and fighting side by side.
Other supporting characters among the unit include BJJ legend Rigan Machado, stunt professional Dan Rizzuto and actress June Sasitorn. Rick Yune, who only appears in a few key scenes, plays Sand, an Army Captain whose first tete-a-tete with Brax ends almost as quickly as it begins, with Brax’s healing in full effect moments after Sand cuts him down. Much of these supporting characters, apart from Avgeropoulos, don’t have much or any dialogue from the start, which in someways neither contributes nor subtracts anything from the story depending on the character, and either way, nary benefits the film.
Some of the worst writing, sadly, is attributed to the only other black character named Tex (played by Eddie Steeple), an Army translator skills are more than questionabale, and whose prominent usefulness to the plot is relegated to some of the most tired, irksome and distasteful “funny black guy” tropes you’ll ever see used in a film – to put it bluntly, one Thai-speaking character aptly enlists the following question with Tex in the room as he takes a swig from a bottle meant for Chan as her wound is being treated: “Who is this clown?”
While most of the CG is worse for wear, the costume used for Tarran’s performance as Brax looks impressively presented enough that it serves its purpose. It doesn’t help, however, that while the asymmetrical frontal cutout of Brax’s headpiece bodes as distracting as inconsistent neon fog that obscures Brax’s face, often revealing a decrepit render of what looks like a photoshopped alien facial structure. You almost wish the production went either the route of Cobra Commander and completely veiled Brax’s face with a visor, or simply put in the effort of applying the necessary make-up and prosthetics required to present a formidable cinematic alien-look.
At best though, Jiu Jitsu will be nothing short of a pure, popcorn-infused delight for martial arts movie fans, namely if the goal is martial arts movie action with a dose of sci-fi escapism. Indelibly, the action is where everyone involved is at their strongest, with most of the action sequences shot popularly as ambitiously-shot oners keeping in line with the demand from the successes of other movies. Some of the shots involve tumbling the camera to follow the actors and at one point to achieve some sort of unverifiable effect when a minor character gets killed off. One of the bigger pay-offs here is a reunion for Supoj Khaowwong, who coordinated stunts on both Kickboxer reboots, as well as on Cage’s 2009 remake of the Pang Brothers’ hitman thriller, Bangkok Dangerous. Khaowwong also directs the action on Jiu Jitsu, and to his credit, definitely knows how to make Cage look good on screen, which is a plus for the actor next to his grand screen presence as an eccentric monastic warrior.
Questions pertaining to whether or not there’s any actual Jiu Jitsu apart from what is presented in the official trailer may be a matter of perception for non-martial artists like this critic, but without question, there is actual, visible Jiu Jitsu in its different styles. Its application as an alien form of combat taught to humans as a means for defeating said aliens sounds as promising a plot set-up as it does in its absurdity, and nonetheless makes for a worthwhile gateway to a nifty comic book property with its own fanbase, written no less by Logothetis and co-author Jim McGrath. The unfortunate tie-in to this is that Logothetis’s own attempt to adapt a worthy comic book into a grand-scale sci-fi martial arts live action thriller with Jiu Jitsu, comes across as nothing short of a promising brain relaxant with an enough martial arts action to pacify the average hard-up genre fan, and very little muscle to sustain its conceptual grip on film.