Review: The Art of Self-Defense

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

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PLOT: A mild-mannered office worker (Jesse Eisenberg) is traumatized when he barely survives a brutal mugging. Determined to learn self-defense, he enrolls in a charismatic sensei’s (Alessandro Nivola) karate class, only to find his there’s a lot more going on in this dojo than martial arts.

REVIEW: THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE is the kind of indie sleeper we just don’t get enough of these days. Thought-provoking, occasionally ghoulish and always hilarious (in an off-kilter sort of way), it’s the non-classifiable type of movie studios, as a rule, stay far away from and might even have a hard time getting made in the current indie/streaming marketplace. Thus, when a film like this actually sees the light of day, it’s something of a miracle as it’s cultish sensibility means it’s not for everyone, but if it’s for you it’s really for you.

It’s certainly a major accomplishment for writer-director Riley Stearns, with it a follow-up to his underrated FAULTS. While the premise – mild-mannered hero learns to fight- is admittedly familiar, nothing whatsoever about the execution is. It’s a lot closer to FIGHT CLUB than it is to THE KARATE KID, but arguably this is an even darker film. This is most definitely the type of movie worth going into blind, with the twists and turns making it an unpredictable ride that’ll make you laugh but also leave you feeling pretty shaken and disturbed afterward. It’s provocative in the best possible way. 

It’s also a terrific star vehicle for all three leads. While Jesse Eisenberg has certainly played his fair share of nebbish heroes, THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE feels like a deconstruction of those roles. He seems like your typical, quiet, “nice” guy – but is he really so nice or is he actually kind of a lunatic? He’s probably a little of both, and Eisenberg is perfectly cast in what’s arguably one of his best roles ever. Even when he starts turning into a lunatic, you can’t help but like him and root for him.

The same goes for Alessandro Nivola, as the charismatic sensei who makes Martin Kove’s John Kreese look like a wimp. His dojo is basically a cult of personality, with him encouraging his students to embrace “manhood” in the silliest of ways – basically by kicking the shit out of each other in his “night classes”, topped off by a “cool-down” which consists mainly of super homo-erotic rubdowns, while listening to nothing but heavy metal because “it’s the toughest music there is.” Nivola is like Chuck Norris from hell in this, and should the film connect I could see him becoming iconic and gracing a number of t-shirts. 

Meanwhile, Imogen Poots has maybe the most interesting role of all as sensei’s lone female student, who sticks around despite him constantly haranguing her for being a woman and thus being “soft”, to the point that during the cool down, getting a message from her and giving one back is seen as a punishment (riiiiiight). A lot has been said about “toxic masculinity” in the media as of late, and this is one of the more effective films to confront that notion head-on, albeit it’s done in a way that’s far from didactic, embracing satire (arguably making it much more effective than a full-on “message picture”).  At the same time, she's as culpable as anyone else when things start to go sideways. It helps that the movie’s also set in what looks to be the mid-nineties, although the setting is kept deliberately vague. It's a playful move by Stearns, who also has the movie scored with music that sounds like it could have come out anytime from 1972 to 2019. 

I really can’t emphasize what a breath of fresh air THE ART OF SELF-DEFENSE feels like, as it’s the first movie I’ve seen in a while that feels legitimately dangerous and edgy. It’s maybe too much of its own beast to connect with a mainstream audience (despite a nice release by Bleecker Street), but it seems primed for midnight movie/cult status. This is one to rush out and go see if it opens near you, and it’s one of the best film of the year (so far) and one that is most definitely going to be in my top five by year’s end.

Review: The Art of Self-Defense




About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.