Movie Review: 'The Art of Self Defense'

John Thomas

The world of martial arts is filled with unwaveringly strict rules and guidelines including a lengthy list of do’s and don’ts while attending classes. To an outsider, these rules appear on the border of sadism, but to someone on the inside the rules offer practitioners a sense of worth and empowerment.

Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a mild-mannered young man who studies French with the dream of one day visiting France. His work is not especially rewarding, his social life nonexistent, however, at the end of the day he does have a loving dachshund awaiting his return home.

“Oops” he says to his dog one evening, “we’re out of dog food.” I’ll just go to the store to get some more for your dinner.” The trip takes him along an empty street through a questionably safe neighborhood. Two people, well concealed by motorcycle gear, slowly pass by asking him if he carries a gun. “That’s odd” he thinks.

On his return home he is accosted by a larger group of motorcyclists who beat him nearly to death. After his release from the hospital he feels it’s time to take action – be more assertive. Unfortunately his request for a gun permit, before actually purchasing a handgun, will take weeks to obtain – he applies anyway.

On his way home from the gun shop, Casey is frightened by aggressively loud shouting. It turns out that the noise is coming from a nearby karate studio. He peeks in the door; his curiosity is aroused and he enters. Impressed with what he sees, he signs up for lessons. Sensi (Alessandro Nivola) is the leader and guiding force of the studio. Casey has been given an extended leave from his work so he takes karate classes from Sensi every day.

Slowly his karate skills improve and his sense of self-worth increases. Sensi is pleased with his progress and impressed with his business skills but still feels he needs to be more assertive. For starters he suggests Casey study German instead of French and get a German shepherd. Casey receives a yellow belt for his progress and is offered a job as the accountant for the studio. As a studio employee, Casey has access to confidential information and a locked storeroom. Exploring both one evening, he makes discoveries that are both revealing and frightening.

Casey is also invited to participate in the night classes. The night students are far different from the day students. They are more aggressive, wear higher ranking belt-colors and during combat occasionally draw blood from an opponent. Eventually, he is invited to a higher level of involvement in the night class activities. This advancement involves riding around on motorcycles.

Casey is finally able to fit the studio’s puzzle pieces together and the picture he sees is not positive. He has become more assertive yet remains on the side of what is good, lawful and correct. He decides to combine all his beliefs, values and skills into one final act.

Directed by Ridley Stearns (Credits: Faults, The Cub) “The Art of Self Defense” is a “should see” movie.



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