‘Jiu Jitsu’ Review: Meta Martial-Arts Melee

Nicolas Cage has worn a lot of things on his head over the years, but the Burmese fisherman’s bonnet we glimpse at the beginning of the action-adventure romp “Jiu Jitsu” is something new. It’s one of the few things in the movie that is.

This is not entirely by accident. It’s pretty clear that director Dimitri Logothetis set out to make a meta martial-arts movie, incorporating a catalog’s worth of kung-fu film conventions and purposely defying them, or lampooning them outright. Jake (Alain Moussi), the mercenary whom we meet fleeing through the woods to the singing sound of double-bladed knives and razor-edged throwing stars hurtling by his head, spends much of the rest of the movie in a state of amnesia, repeating every question asked of him and inhabiting a fog bank of confusion. He would have been at home, in other words, in a lot of ’80s action films, notably “Predator,” the Arnold Schwarzenegger original, from which Mr. Logothetis borrows wholesale: What seems to be a military operation becomes a sci-fi rescue mission of the Earth itself. Every six years, a comet reappears in the sky over Myanmar, and a portal opens allowing a “warrior of death” to re-enter our world. Jake is our only hope. God help us.

“Jiu Jitsu” is an ambitious undertaking in its way, one that will probably tickle hardcore martial-arts and samurai movie fans, although the attraction may be more academic than adrenaline-fueled. Graphic-novel-style panels and titles introduce different chapters in the story, which is adapted by Mr. Logothetis and Jim McGrath from their comic book of the same name. It follows an international team fighting their unearthly opponent, who centuries before taught jiu jitsu to his pathetic Earthling adversaries. A la “Predator,” we get the alien’s point of view through night-vision-style images. We get pure comedy courtesy of Eddie Steeples, whose portrayal of the army’s comically incompetent translator, Tex, could have been in Burmese and it would have been funny. There’s certainly not enough of him.

But fight scenes takes up most of the time in “Jiu Jitsu” (available in select theaters and on digital and on demand as of Nov. 20). An enormous amount of time, with very little of the “wirework” that characterized the classics of Hong Kong action cinema. One lengthy battle takes place out-of-doors, with none of the alien hunters—who include Kueng, played by the Thai martial-arts star Tony Jaa, and Jake’s love interest, Carmen (JuJu Chan)—tethered to anything. The fight choreography looks “real.” It’s more earthy. It also makes obvious why Chinese filmmakers used wires. In one bit of visual mischief, cinematographer Gerardo Madrazo shoots one fight from Jake’s point of view, which basically means two fists waving around in front of the camera lens. Still, it’s not something that’s seen very often, if ever.

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