Action movies really only need to deliver one thing — good, memorable action sequences. That’s especially the case for lower budgeted, direct-to-video action fare that can’t afford stunning locales, big stars, and killer production design. Jiu-Jitsu is the latest entry into the DTV action landscape, and while it neglects to include any jiu-jitsu (more on that later) it does give viewers plenty of action beats and a few fun thrills.
A comet heads towards Earth, but don’t worry about that. Down on the surface, a man named Jake (Alain Moussi) is running through a jungle in Myanmar with an invisible-ish, Predator-cosplayer in hot pursuit. Knocked unconscious in a fall, he awakes in military custody before being rescued by Kueng (Tony Jaa) and reintroduced to the fighter squad he can’t remember including Harrigan (Frank Grillo), Sand (Rick Yune), and Carmen (JuJu Chan). He soon discovers — well, maybe not soon as it actually takes several conversations, geographical jumps, and the introduction of Wylie (Nicolas Cage), but he eventually discovers — that he’s part of a defense force chosen to save Earth from destruction. Every six years an alien fighter named Brax arrives demanding a “fair” fight, and if he’s satisfied or beaten, the Earth is safe for another six years.
Jiu Jitsu, from director/co-writer Dimitri Logothetis and co-writer Jim McGrath, is the kind of silly action/sci-fi fare the late 80s/early 90s used to deliver on a regular basis — a goofy but engaging plot grounded with affordable settings and performers but made memorable through a steady flow of competent action sequences. Logothetis manages just that here with the added bonus of some truly talented fighters in Moussi, Jaa, and Chan. None of it is enough to raise the film above the level of a Cyborg (1989) or a Project Metalbeast (1995), but it’s an entertaining enough diversion for action fans. What it isn’t, though, is even slightly related to jiu-Jitsu.
This is admittedly a point that others won’t be as stuck on, but if you’re going to call your film Jiu Jitsu and talk about how an alien brought the fighting style to Earth — maybe let some of your characters actually use jiu-jitsu? The martial arts style, particularly in its Brazilian form, isn’t interested in hitting or kicking (and definitely isn’t keen on automatic weapons) as it’s instead a grappling-heavy technique used to disarm and disable opponents through leverage and physical manipulation. We get none of that here, and that’s despite someone saying “Just remember the one thing you always have with jiu-Jitsu… leverage.”
To be fair, the action we do get is thrilling enough to warrant a watch with its combination of fights and gunplay. As mentioned, at least three of the cast members here are talented, entertaining fighters busting loose in well-choreographed hand-to-hand combat, and Logothetis does a solid job capturing much of it with clarity. There are some missteps including a brief but weird diversion into first-person POV at one point — that temporarily shifts back to normal before returning to the character’s POV again — that’s more distracting than successful, as well as the overuse of speed-ramping during some moves. Jaa gets a fun enough “single take” assault through an enemy-heavy compound, though, and Cage’s fighting double is entertaining too.
If the action and cast are the reasons to watch Jiu Jitsu, then the script, editing, and reliance on CG (gunfire, smoke, dust, fire, etc) are the reasons why it ultimately fails to impress. A silly story is one thing, but it takes its premise so seriously that it stumbles beneath attempts to explain and justify itself. Brax travels thousands of light-years to get here… every six years? He fights nine people with his super-advanced armory, but if they bring in soldiers it’s cheating? He cares about fairness? “Who the hell are those Jedi Knights who just took out my unit?” says one character, but none of them have seen Predator? “You are right this minute where he wants you to be, and it is over,” says Wylie. “Ball in net. Game match set. Checkmate.” Did no one realize that Cage messed up “game set match?!”
Editing is wonky with characters appearing and disappearing during scenes or suddenly arriving in seemingly distant locales despite traveling on foot. Some of that is presumably due to not having all of the name actors on set at the same time at all times, but it makes for some clunky sequences. Inconsistent use of comic panels and some terribly unfunny comic relief (sorry Eddie Steeples) add to the wobbly tone where things are deadly serious until they’re not.
Jiu Jitsu is nonsense — and I wish them luck having already declared this as the start of a new franchise — but action fans will be satiated by a talented cast kicking butt across fairly nondescript landscapes. The plot is more convoluted than it needs to be, and budget limitations are evident, but hey, Cage makes the Face/Off (1997) gesture while wearing a mad smile, so that’s gotta count for something.