Jesse Eisenberg channels his inner “karate kid” in writer-director Riley Stearns’ hilarious dark martial arts comedy, The Art of Self-Defense, from Bleecker Street Pictures. Timid and meek accountant Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) lives a routine life with no real sense of confidence. Casey has no friends, nor does he socialize with his co-workers; in retrospect, Casey’s only friend is his pet wiener dog. One night while Casey is picking up food for his dog, he is beat senseless by a motorcycle gang. During some mandatory time off to recover from his injuries, Casey briefly flirts with the idea of purchasing a gun for protection, but instead, he decides to sign up for a free trial karate class.
The mysterious teacher of the class known only as Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) takes an instant liking to Casey and takes him under his tutelage. While in class, Casey encounters the lone female student in the class Anna (Imogen Poots) as well as Henry (David Zellner). As the weeks pass, Casey begins to master the basics of karate, but as he gains the respect of Sensei, Casey soon learns things are never what they appear to be.
As Casey becomes more confident in himself due to Sensei’s teachings, we slowly watch as he unravels into a stereotypical alpha male. One of the film’s funniest moments occurs when Casey stands up for himself during his normal day to day routine. The sequence showcases Eisenberg’s ability to deliver his lines at a rapid pace which allows the dark comedy aspect of the film script’s successful transition to the screen.
The secondary characters of Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and Anna (Imogen Poots) also have an interesting arc. I personally feel that Alessandro Nivola never gets his just due as an actor. In the role of Sensei, the thespian finally has a chance to shine. As Sensei he conveys a menacing martial artist with homicidal tendencies. The script never turns the character of Sensei into a parody, which would’ve been the easy route to go, instead we get a rich character with no moral compass. On the flip side, the character of Anna (Imogen Poots) has a moral compass, yet she has to downplay her martial arts talent in the sexist hierarchy of the dojo. I highly respect Stearns’ decision to cast an actress known for her beauty in the role which requires Poots to channel an alpha female. Anna never falls into the stereotypical love interest angle, which was also surprising.
Given the film’s small budget, the martial arts sequences were quite impressive. Female stunt and fight coordinator Mindy Kelly handles the choreography of the martial arts sequences, with the precision of a veteran. All of the training sequences and fight scenes have a natural and realistic approach to them. While I’m sure the actors had stunt doubles, there was never a moment of disbelief during the fight scenes, which is often the case in some martial arts films. Surprisingly, some of the audience members behind me consonantly commented on the realism of the fight scenes. The audience also seemed to pick up on the subliminal joke involving the time period setting for the film. Throughout the film, Riley Stearns and his cinematographer highlight things such as cassette players in cars, an answering machine in Casey’s home, VHS tapes in the dojo, and not a cell phone in sight. While there’s never a reveal of the year in which the film is set, I personally think it’s the early nineties.
The Art of Self-Defense is an impressive second feature from writer and director Riley Stearns, with its humorous script, majestic fight choreography and great performances from its cast. While the film’s dry wit isn’t for all tastes, if you are a fan of gallows humor, I highly recommend checking it out.
MPAA Rating R