It’s not the worst idea in sci-fi B-movie history: a ruthless alien race, that also happen to be experts in the martial arts, invade the planet every half-dozen years to battle its most exceptional warriors. The fate of mankind is at stake, but in “Jiu Jitsu,” writer-director Dimitri Logothetis (“Kickboxer: Retaliation”) makes the absolute least of a promising concept. Shamelessly cribbing from the original “Predator” (1987), “Mortal Kombat” (1992), and “The Bourne Identity” (2002), the movie’s sole bright spot is Nicolas Cage’s sprightly turn as a Yoda-like sage, but the Crazy Cage factor can’t save this silly mess of half-baked ideas.
After he is saved by a Burmese fishing boat, Jake Barnes (Alain Moussi), a severely injured master Jiu Jitsu fighter, recovers, but suffers from amnesia. Mimicking his state of confusion, it’s not clear when the film takes place — though the characters refer to their location (where much of the action unfolds) as Burma, which became Myanmar in 1989, so one can only assume that the film is either set prior to 1989, or is in some kind of alternate reality version of it populated by futuristic elements like spacemen and electromagnetic pulses.
Dumped by locals at a nearby U.S. military base, Jake is confined and interrogated by an intelligence officer, Myra (Marie Avgeropoulos), the leader of a covert operation that has arrived there to study a bizarre occurrence connected to the mystical flight of a meteor that occurs every six years. But Myra’s attempts to extract any information from Jake’s memories are interrupted when a mysterious warrior named Keung (Thai martial artist extraordinaire Tony Jaa of the “Ong Bak” trilogy) intervenes and removes Jake from the caustic environment. He’s then reunited with a group of warriors, led by the pragmatic Harrigan (Frank Grillo), whose only raison d’être is to protect earth from deadly extraterrestrial forces.
Among these threats is something radioactive in Burma’s “Valley of the Temples,” where Jake’s fate may lie, which the unit must investigate. But to get there, they must first cross the Burmese wilderness. That’s where “Jiu Jitsu” finds its chief strength. Shot in Cyprus, the film’s habitat is easily its most appealing quality, featuring the tallest of trees and picturesque foliage landscapes streaked with light.
Much of the film concentrates on a man-and-monster rumble in the jungle with a camouflaged two-dimensional killer alien named Brax, as Jake’s squad is picked off one at a time. The creature’s holographic face resembles Mesoamerican Olmec head design, and suggests more creativity behind the scenes went to character design than development. Which is not to say that Jake doesn’t evolve. Eventually, the amnesiac discovers that he possesses a particular set of skills, including an extraordinary penchant for self-defense that suggests a dangerous past. But that matters less than what he skills provide in the present: exactly what the story needs to set him up for a climactic brawl with Brax.
With a title like “Jiu Jitsu,” one expects a certain quotient of fight scenes, and the movie delivers on that front much better than does with its flimsy plot. If the overlong and often tedious brawls were at least believable and well-choreographed, maybe there would be something commendable and entertaining to be derived from the experience of watching the film. No such luck. The movie is endlessly violent, with a sparse narrative and uninspired character motivations to justify the outbrusts. Broken up into chapters with comic book interstitials, the acting is subpar at best, and the dialogue comprises of endless clichés of the over-used “We’ve got company!” sort.
Logothetis tries, though. At times he makes the curious decision to switch perspectives during some of the biggest showdowns, including one jarring use of first person. But it’s never enough to rescue a movie where the stakes never seem that high. The hero’s schizophrenia might appear to be logical given his circumstance, but it’s never clear what’s driving it, and his mysterious background relies on non-specific suppositions that the filmmaker hopes the audience already understands based on better examples of the tropes at hand. Or maybe Logothetis believes that keeping audiences in the dark on the mystery that is Jake Barnes is enough to string them along through the film’s running time.
While Cage finally appears about 40 minutes into the film as an eccentric expert swordsman who makes paper hats in his spare time, the levity of his very presence provides some measure of a relief. He’s featured in a key fight sequence with Brax towards the end of the film as well as in a big reveal; that’s enough to justify his prominence in the movie’s marketing, but doesn’t salvage the half-baked concept around him.
Jake eventually finds his way toward some measure of salvation, but much about his past and the alien itself remains cloaked in mystery. It’s almost as if Logothetis was considering turning the idea into a franchise from the very start. And, of course, he is — but “Jiu Jitsu” doesn’t make the best case for the next chapter.
A Highland Film Group production, “Jiu Jitsu” opens in select theaters and streaming via video on demand starting Friday, November 20.
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