It's not the low budget of Jiu Jitsu that makes it more wobbly than a white belt. It's that it never tries to punch above its weight.
As if resigned to accept its fate as a B-movie with a talented cast, Jiu Jitsu fails to capitalize on a rare combination of elements that could have made it great. And with Nic Cage starring, it almost comes within striking distance of being a cult classic.
A science fiction action movie from director Dimitir Logothetis that opens on November 20, Jiu Jitsu is the story about Earth's most ancient defense force: An order of jiu jitsu masters who train to fight a visiting alien every six years, to save the planet from being conquered.
When humanity's contestant, Jake Barnes (Alain Moussi, Kickboxer: Vengeance) suffers amnesia, he embarks on a request to regain his lost memories — and his bonds to his fellow masters — before stepping up to save Earth once more.
Jiu Jitsu may come to be best-known as "that kung fu movie with Nicolas Cage." That's not an incorrect assessment. Jiu Jitsu is the latest effort from the Oscar-winner (Best Actor, Leaving Last Vegas, 1996), but it falls far below the bar set by recent cult classics like 2018's Mandy and 2019's Color Out of Space.
That the movie sort of wastes Cage's still obvious talent is a bummer.
While it recognizes Cage's singular magnetism for making idiosyncratic characters uniquely his own, the final cut doesn't do much with his considerable gifts as a legendary actor.
However, Cage offers plenty of slightly goofy fun here. He appears in the role of Wylie, a hippie mentor with a quarterstaff, but in moments it feels like he was given a script to a different kind of movie. He has the unfortunate chore of doling out exposition, but the National Treasure star ultimately functions as a sideshow.
With a Willie Nelson headband and an easygoing manner, Wylie creates amusing, ironic moments that do a great job of striking a balance between the more bewildering parts of the movie.
Cage also gets two fight scenes to shine, in which I'm told the actor (who has a real black belt in jiu-jitsu under Royce Gracie) performed "80 percent" of his own stunts.
But the star is not the lead here. That's the movie's Achilles heel. Its star is Alain Moussi, the actor/martial artist from the Kickboxer reboots (also helmed by Logothetis). While a physical heavyweight whose real-life martial arts chops translate well on screen, Moussi's performance, unfortunately, can best be described as wooden. Give him time, though, and the actor may develop those chops just like he did his martial arts training.
Surrounded by an ensemble that includes Tony Jaa, Frank Grillo, Rick Yune, JuJu Chan (an actor who, despite her best efforts, can't make a romance with Moussi convincing), and yes, Nicolas freaking Cage, it's bizarre how and why Jiu Jitsu came up with a redundant character like Jake when any of these "supporting characters" would have anchored a more interesting story.
The mythology of Jiu Jitsu is nonsensical. The premise builds on the idea that jiu jitsu has no recorded origin to make a "Maybe it was aliens" argument straight out of the History Channel. The result is a lower-stakes Mortal Kombat, but instead of a tournament, it's a one-on-one match against an alien seeking eternal competition.
If you're like me, you'll watch this movie because you find it on a streamer like Netflix or you "rent" it because your cat jumped on the remote control.
Jiu Jitsu does one thing well, and it's plenty of solid jiu jitsu choreography — some performed by Nicolas Cage! This film could've been a classic, but its punch misses the target.
Jiu Jitsu will be released in theaters and Digital HD on November 20.