Nicolas Cage’s career really seems to be experiencing a second wind. After flops like The Wicker Man, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Left Behind put his filmography in a grave, his recent work in Mandy and Color Out of Space have reminded audiences why his quirky brand of leading performance has made him such as Hollywood mainstay. His latest release, sci-fi actioner Jiu Jitsu, doesn’t live up to this hallmark, although his performance is perhaps the film’s highlight.
Directed by Greek filmmaker Dimitri Logothetis, Jiu Jitsu stars Alain Moussi – stuntman in the likes of X-Men: Apocalypse and Suicide Squad – as Jake, a natural-born fighter whose adventures coincide with a group of warriors led by Harrigan (Cage). Jake’s task is to defeat an ancient, Predator-like monster who stalks the Burmese forest ever six years – and if he fails, all of humanity is at risk.
Yes, the description of Jiu Jitsu‘s plot is brief, but that’s because there really isn’t much more to it than that. The film – penned by Logothetis and James McGrath – certainly opts for style over substance, which is unsurprising considering the martial arts-based background of large swathes of the cast and crew. The film at times feels inflected with epic sci-fi tropes from the likes of Dune and even the action of Extraction, but its inability to make the battle between Jake and Brax, the invisible, jungle-based villain who feels like a soulless carbon-copy of John McTiernan’s Predator. In that sense, it does feel like a harkening back to 80s action B-movies, from the mouthy group of fighters trying to take the monster down to the comic-book aesthetics that drive the narrative, but it lacks the charm or spark that make its predecessors so watchable.
And as hinted at, Nicolas Cage is far and away the shining light of the film. Yes, he’s certainly phoning it in a bit – this isn’t as wacky as we’ve seen him before – but the charm with which he plays Harrigan, the battle-wisened leader of the troupe of warriors, seems almost effortless. His character arc is taken in a predictable, eye-rolling direction, but that’s no fault of Cage’s: all he can do is chew the scenery and have fun with the role, which he certainly does. His character arrives at the perfect point of the film – where the plot is dwindling and an injection of life is desperately needed – and without him it would be a much less interesting watch.
Which is to say that when Cage isn’t letting loose on screen, it’s a much more painful experience. It works best as a switch-your-brain-off action romp, as storytelling always seems to take the backseat. At times it feels like the screenwriters don’t know how to frame dialogue – there are uncomfortable silences that feel like padding rather than to build tension – and although it presents itself like a sparse, lore-heavy sci-fi universe, it really boils down to little more than a monster-killing exercise. The Predator-esque monster, Brax, feels like a villain from Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers if they brutally slaughtered people, and the choreography of its battles with the cast is genuinely engaging, and comfortably the film’s best element when Mr. Cage isn’t around.
And perhaps that’s the problem with Jiu Jitsu: it banks so heavily on starring Nicolas Cage that it forgets to use him in any meaningful way, and doesn’t create a story compelling enough to carry the weight of his talent and star power. His performance is vintage Cage: kooky, light and fun, but nothing else in the film matches up to that. You’ll slightly forget its problems when the fists start flying – aside from the awful CGI blood – but Jiu Jitsu stumbles at almost every hurdle.