These days if I have the time and you have Nicolas Cage in your movie there’s a good shot I’ll watch it. It’s difficult to pinpoint just what it is about the man that makes him so damn fun to watch but I’m a sucker for…whatever it is.
Cage’s latest entry in live action form is Jiu Jitsu, directed by Dimitri Logothetis. It’s a sci-fi action flick that had a late 2020 video release before hitting Netflix in March.
Let’s not use shady marketing tactics here though. Cage is not the star of the film and doesn’t get involved until about 40 minutes in. When he does it’s all sorts of awesome!
What the Hell is This Movie?
At a glance Jiu Jitsu might connote a run of the mill martial arts affair. Instead it is a mixture of Paul W.S. Anderson’s Mortal Kombat and Predator.
We’re dropped into a jungle in Burma where Jake (Alain Moussi) is dodging shurikens from an unseen attacker before diving into the sea. After he’s rescued and brought to a military camp we find that his recollection of who he is and why he’s here is fuzzy.
After being broken out from the camp by Kueng (Tony Jaa), Jake and Kueng meet up with what seems like a group of mercenaries led by Frank Grillo’s Harrigan. This group is actually a bit more than mercenaries.
It turns out the thing chasing Jake in the opening sequence was an alien. Every six years this alien, named Brax, comes to Burma to battle nine great fighters. If he doesn’t get his fight, Brax goes ape and destroys nearby villages killing anyone in his sight. So these warriors are assembled to give Brax his ritual battle to appease the tradition and send him on his merry way.
When I say this movie has Predator vibes I’m really not kidding. From the jungle setting to military soldiers being picked off by an alien, this is a low budget and less violent Predator knockoff in many ways.
It doesn’t stop there. Brax does a lot of things Predator does. He throws shurikens, turns invisible, watches people with Predator-like vision that can see heartbeats, has a wrist blade and hops from tree to tree. There’s even a sequence where Brax can’t see one of his enemies because they disguised their body heat, at least that’s how it appears.
Brax is not Predator though. The monster design is possibly the biggest flaw in the whole film. We really don’t see what Brax looks like sans his battle suit and helmet. The suit itself isn’t much to look at. It’s rubber with some glowy trim that emits exhaust. His helmet is a mostly blank dome most of the time with some slight glimpses of the face underneath later in the film. Unlike Predator, Brax doesn’t have a particularly imposing frame either. Just an average dude in a cheap rubber suit.
If it weren’t for the lame costume and cheap Predator knock off tactics Brax could’ve been a lot of fun. He is far more agile and has martial arts ability — hence why the light costume was likely used — and is an expert with a katana. He can also heat up his hands to burn people up. Maybe it’s the gloves. Maybe it’s Maybelline?
‘Help me Obi Wan’
Finally, after nearly a quarter of the movie we get some Nic Cage. After Brax lays waste to a large portion of the military soldiers, Jake is on the run and falls down a hole. In that hole is a whacked out sage version of Nic Cage.
Cage’s character Wylie is sort of like Obi Wan Kenobi. He’s a wise, weary warrior living in seclusion in his underground hidey hole. He and Jake have a fight while he drops some knowledge and gives us a little more exposition. It’s probably the highlight of the whole movie. Wylie shows Jake his favorite chair, favorite hobby and — how the hell did he get a piano down there?
Wylie makes the ninth fighter for the battle against Brax. We’re still somewhat in the dark on why Jake doesn’t remember things or what role he has to play but Harrigan and Wylie make it clear he’s pretty important.
The best thing about this movie, aside from Nic Cage, is the camera work. There are quite a few interesting choices made when capturing the action scenes.
The first that caught my attention was a long shot of Tony Jaa as he battles his way through soldiers during his rescue of Jake. The camera follows behind Jaa as he hops on top of walls and buildings taking down everybody in his way. It appears to be an on the shoulder shot that runs, jumps and pivots along with the Jaa. I believe it’s actually a couple long shots edited together with brief cutaways where things are spliced together but it is a lot of fun to watch.
Mixed into this sequence the camera jumps into the point of view of Jake. This bit is especially interesting because we’re POV with Jake while he fights, then the camera sort of drops out of his POV and sits stationary as he does some takedowns. Then he rolls toward the camera and it resumes the POV perspective. At another point the camera drops out of POV again and sits stationary while Jake and Jaa come in and out of the shot. It’s just frantic enough to be exciting without being distracting.
Shortly after this sequence there is the scene where the soldiers are in the jungle being attacked by Brax. This time the camera is mounted in front of a couple of the characters, showing us the fear in their faces as they run away while shurikens fly after them.
There seemed to be quite a bit of shoulder cam work throughout this movie and it was a standout feature from a technical aspect where other things failed.
The film also used comic book panels as transitions between sequences. It wasn’t necessary to the aesthetic and didn’t add anything significant to telling the story but it often fit with the pace.
The other highlight of this movie for me was its humor. Early on there is a character named Tex (Eddie Steeples) who plays the military’s worst interpreter. He was purely comic relief but it was much needed. Tex didn’t have a ton of screen time but made the most of it when his number was called. Cage is also funny. Sometimes when he might not be trying to be.
The monster design is the flaw that hurt this film the most. With a more imposing monster I could have bought into the tension much more.
But aside from that, the special effects were a glaring weak point from the very first scene. Frankly Predator had superior special effects and Mortal Kombat was at least on par with this, if not a little better.
In the final act when the remaining fighters are preparing for their last stand against Brax there are a couple establishing shots of the temple they are in. For some reason all I could think of when seeing this was the shots of the Wicked Witch’s castle in The Wizard of Oz.
If this movie was released in the 90s I would’ve eaten it up. The fights are like juiced up battles from the original Power Rangers series. Brax’s rubber suit certainly fits that description. This isn’t to sell the choreography short. The fight choreographers had to carry much of the 1 hour 41 minute runtime. But it is basically fight after fight with some story mixed in.
Jiu Jitsu may go down as a must see in the Nic Cage pantheon for its absurdity alone. It’s not a classic but a better monster and increased budget could’ve done wonders. If you pitch me Predator versus samurais with Nic Cage attached I’m greenlighting that movie 10/10.
I had no complaints while Cage was on the screen. In case you were wondering, yes, he does fight the alien/Predator. Unfortunately there was too much of a generic action protagonist and not enough Cage.
Overall score 1.5/5
The Shameless Plugs
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