“The Art of Self-Defense” does not pull its chops and kicks in its dark satiric examination of toxic masculinity, and I appreciate that to some degree. At first, it initially seems to be a whimsical send-up of “The Karate Kid” (1984), but then it becomes increasingly unnerving and uncomfortable as its meek hero is drawn into more aggression and violence under the virulent influence of his shady martial art instructor, and I observed this disturbing progress with alarmed fascination.
At the beginning, we see how things are often miserable and frustrating for a young accountant named Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg). In the opening scene, he silently endures being ridiculed by a French couple who happen to drop by a cafe where he often spends some time, and he later has a very awkward moment with several colleagues of his, who casually disregard him when he makes a pathetic attempt to join their conversation.
At least, Casey gets some consolation from a little pet dog as he comes back to his residence in the evening. When he subsequently finds that he runs out of dog food, he promptly goes outside for buying a new bag of dog food, but then, unfortunately, he comes across a bunch of anonymous motorcycle gang members, who, after finding that he does not carry a gun or any other weapon, ambush him and then beat him pretty hard.
As a consequence, Casey has to spend some days at a local hospital, and he is expected to recover and go back to work as soon as possible, but he cannot help but feel the need to be strong enough to protect himself. He considers buying a gun at one point, but then he is told that he needs to wait for several days before allowed to buy a gun, and that certainly makes him feel more frustrated and emasculated than before.
And then there comes an unexpected opportunity to him on one day. When he happens to pass by a local Karate hall belonging to a guy who simply calls himself ‘Sensei’, Casey decides to go inside the hall, and then he sees the possibility of strengthening himself through learning Karate. He does not hesitate at all when he is told that he can join the daytime class taught by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) right now, and he is certainly eager to learn a lot from Sensei along with other pupils including Anna (Imogen Poots), the sole female member in Sensei’s Karate hall who has also taken care of a class for children.
As he trains day by day, Casey becomes more occupied with practicing Karate, and he also comes to pay more attention to what Sensei often emphasizes to him and other pupils. Always speaking with utmost seriousness, Sensei frequently makes a point on being strong and masculine, and his pupils including Anna always listen to him without any question while also hoping for another advance in their rank, which is mainly represented by the color of their waist belts.
As a new pupil, Casey initially received a white waist belt, but he soon finds himself advancing to a yellow one, and things accordingly look better to him than before. During one amusing scene, he goes to a local supermarket and then buys a bunch of yellow products for emboldening himself more, but, alas, his supposedly soaring spirit only gets thwarted by an unfortunate encounter with some rude guy.
As Casey feels frustrated and emasculated again, he is drawn more to what has been espoused by Sensei, and then the story takes an unexpected dark turn. Although Casey is still stuck with his yellow waist belt, Sensei allows him to join his nighttime class, and Casey soon comes to behold the hidden dark side of Sensei, who subsequently pushes Casey toward his twisted conception of masculinity. While he is quite unnerved by what is demonstrated and taught to him, Casey feels more emboldened than before, and he eventually comes to commit a number of violent acts he has never imagined before.
Although it stumbles during its last act and the finale does not work as well as intended, the movie remains engaging thanks to the competent direction of director/writer Riley Stearns, who previously made a feature film debut with “Faults” (2014). She and her crew members including her cinematographer Michael Ragen did a good job of establishing the offbeat comic tone on the screen, and I particularly enjoyed the period mood and details which look deliberately retro.
Stearns also drew enjoyable performances from her main cast members. Jesse Eisenberg, who is no stranger to looking meek and neurotic, conveys well to us his character’s conflicted thoughts and feelings, and he also ably handles a number of darkly humorous moments in the film. While Alessandro Nivola imbues his role with enough charm and charisma as required, Imogen Poots holds her own place well around Eisenberg and Nivola, and she is especially good when her character reveals her longtime frustration to Casey later in the story.
On the whole, “The Art of Self-Defense” intrigued me enough for recommendation despite its weak aspects. Although it could be more focused and acerbic in terms of story and characters, it gave me a fair share of amusement at least, and I think you will enjoy it more than me if you have ever tried to learn martial art.