Making a big Hollywood action movie in the 21st century means following some well-established rules: the stunts have to be massive, the explosions have to be enveloping, the soundtrack has to be booming, and the fight scenes have to be rapidly cut sensory assaults where fists and feet seem to fly everywhere. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But either way, it’s hard not to get a little bored seeing variations on the same Michael Bay/Paul Greengrass-derived immersive, middle-of-the-action approach, particularly when it obscures the work of first-class fighters and stunt performers. There is, however, another tradition, one with decades-old roots in Hong Kong action movies, and even deeper roots in silent comedy. This older, richer tradition allows more space for action to unfold. But it’s gone semi-underground this century, disappearing into the world of films that premiere on video-on-demand, or arrive there shortly after their limited theatrical runs.
The last couple of decades have seen a steady churn of lower-profile, lower-budget action films from around the world, films that make a virtue of resourcefulness by emphasizing fight scenes where viewers can actually see what the fights look like. That may not seem like a radical step, but there’s a reason certain film fans speak of Ninja: Shadow of a Tear and its star, Scott Adkins, in hushed tones, even though Adkins has never graduated beyond supporting roles in Hollywood films. The low-budget-action world has its own rules and its own stars, a good handful of which show up in Dimitri Logothetis’ simultaneously thrilling and silly science-fiction action film Jiu Jitsu, in which a handful of specially skilled martial artists battle an alien who periodically visits the Earth looking for a good fight.
That may seem like a thin premise for a movie, and Jiu Jitsu doesn’t do much to suggest otherwise. Casual viewers might be tempted to bail early on, thanks to a confusing, sluggishly paced opening act that involves an amnesiac being rescued by a Burmese fisherman, then taken to a U.S. military base to be questioned by the authorities. The amnesiac, Jake (Alain Moussi), is later rescued by Keung (Tony Jaa, star of the Ong Bak series), who he knew in his forgotten past. Keung’s arrival doesn’t make the movie much clearer, but it does usher in the first of a long string of remarkable fight scenes, as the two stars take down what seems to be an entire combat unit chosen solely for their fighting skills.
From there, Jiu Jitsu keeps adding nimble cast members to fight by Jake’s side. Moussi hails from Gabon and Canada, and is best known for starring in the revived Kickboxer series, including an entry directed by Logothetis. He teams up with figures recognizable from films and television series made in America (Frank Grillo), China (JuJu Chan), Brazil (Rigan Machado), and even outer space, if the alien counts. Then it adds the most famous face of all: Nicolas Cage.
Logothetis seems to only have had Cage for a few days of filming, but he clearly made the most of those days. Cage’s character, Wylie, lives in shame because he once fled from a fight with the alien. He’s determined not to let Jake and the others make the same mistake. He’s also, by his own description, crazy. Cage is highly capable of delivering quiet, subtle, nuanced work. Jiu Jitsu is not an example of that. One of the film’s most memorable scenes involves an aside where Wylie talks about his love of making paper boats. For much of the movie, he speaks breathlessly while wearing sunglasses, necklaces, and a red headband, an outfit that looks too much like Dennis Hopper’s costume in Apocalypse Now to have been a coincidence.
Cage seems to be having fun here. He seems to be having fun a lot lately. While his busy schedules hasn’t entirely taken him away from the dreary, predictable revenge thrillers he starred in when he first started making VOD movies, since the release of Mom and Dad in 2018, he seems to have consciously sought out movies where he can let loose a little, or at least lucked into them a little more often than he used to. Nothing in Jiu Jitsu is as strange as the scene in 2018’s Between Worlds where his character reads from an erotic book titled Memories, credited to an author named “Nicolas Cage.” Nor does the film ever approach the quality of his best recent films, Color Out of Space and (especially) Mandy. But it makes great use of Cage’s unique presence. It never plays like a waste of his time.
Once it kicks into gear, it never feels like a waste of viewers’ time, either. As the film progresses, the alien fighters’ human opponents fall by the wayside as they take on the extraterrestrial killing machine. The set-up owes a lot to the man-vs.-alien classic Predator, and so, at times, does the execution, with our heroes taking on a being capable of camouflaging itself in the middle of the forest. (Logothetis’ native Cyprus stands in for Burma here.) But originality isn’t really the point. And though any Cage-free attempts at comedy fall flat, the action remains exciting, thanks in large part to Logothetis’ steady-handed, no-frills approach. Who knew putting together a bunch of gifted martial artists and letting them exercise those skills could take an action film so far?
Jiu Jitsu will arrive simultaneously in limited theatrical release, on digital rental platforms, and on VOD services on Nov. 20.