“The Art of Self-Defense” brings satire to the genre of martial arts films. In this dark comedy, a group of muggers attack Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg), a meek guy stuck in his daily routine. After the attack, he takes it upon himself to learn self-defense at his local dojo, taught by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola).
In Eisenberg’s previous performances in “The Social Network,” “Adventureland” and “Night Moves,” he played similar quirky social outcast characters, but his portrayal of Davies is something different. Within this film, he showcases the extent of his acting range. There was a level of intensity from his performance not seen in his previous work, but he still portrayed the same character type.
Nivola’s performance as the hypermasculine Sensei was a direct contrast to Eisenberg’s meek character, which set up comedic moments in the film. On-set chemistry must have been great because dialogue between the actors bounced well. Their delivery had a serious approach with comedic outcomes, which could also be the result of the writing and directing.
Riley Stearns’ direction and writing contributed social commentary about toxic masculinity. Seeing Davies’ struggles, which ranged from getting mugged to crying in his car after he backed down from a fight, was difficult. He attempted to dismantle his own internalized toxic masculinity and that of his Sensei, who influenced him.
With most character arcs in this genre of film, characters grow from being meek and defenseless to strong and powerful. At the beginning of the film, it follows that arc but treats the audience to a different viewing experience with its satirical humor.
Stearns did an amazing job of fleshing out his characters by taking the formulaic trope of an underdog story and putting his own spin on it. The execution of character development was excellent, and the interactions between characters felt genuine. The moment Davies was promoted to a yellow belt, excitement filled his face. From that point on, he made it his mission to always wear his yellow belt. He went as far as to have a custom leather belt made to wear casually through his day.
The number of visuals and settings in the film were minimal, but less is more in this instance. This film may not have been a spectacle of explosions filled to the brim with CGI, but it delivers with its simplistic approach to visuals.
The backdrop cements this world in realism, while the fight sequences are very dramatic and heavily draw the audience to learn more about the characters. Satire presented in the film and some of the jokes come off as a little shocking and off-putting, but the jokes deliver laughs.
The comedy is not for everyone, but it is reminiscent of “Napoleon Dynamite” because it shares some of the movie’s comedic elements. “The Art of Self-Defense” limits itself with its dry and satirical humor, but the parody element was done justice and not loaded with pop culture references. Fans of action and martial arts films will enjoy this hilarious take on the genre just as much as fans of parody.
4.5 out of 5 stars