VOD film review: The Art of Self-Defense
James R | On 01, Sep 2021
Director: Riley Stearns
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots
Where to watch The Art of Self-Defense online in the UK: Netflix UK / Apple TV (iTunes) / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Rakuten TV / Google Play / Sky Store / CHILI
“Karate is a way of communicating,” declares Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) to his dojo early on in The Art of Self-Defense. It’s a statement that’s designed to impress his students, but it’s also a sincerely held belief for this would-be alpha male – and the fact that he chooses physical conflict as a way of interacting with the world is a sign of how misled his philosophy really is. That he then nonsensically tells these young adults to “kick with your fists and punch with your feet” only adds to his amusingly inept ability to communicate with anyone on an honest level.
Drawn into this world is Casey (Jesse Eisenberg), a young accountant who is mugged one evening by a motorcycle gang on his way home from work. He’s shy, socially awkward and softly spoken – and he’s had enough of being a punching bag. And so he decides to find a way to protect himself against dangerous threats. A local gun store warns him that anyone carrying a firearm is more likely to get shot in an altercation than someone who isn’t, then happily continues to process his purchase – and while he then gets distracted by the chance to learn hand-to-hand combat, that clear-cut logic about the self-perpetuating nature of aggression delivers a clinical foot sweep to everything that follows.
Eisenberg is perfectly cast as the gentle, frustrated bean-counter, who’s so determined to be respected that he’s immediately susceptible to his Sensei’s manipulations. Nivola is a wonderful counterpart, at once imperiously enigmatic and transparently self-centred – a self-styled cult leader who thinks he’s Tyler Durden but is closer to Johnny Lawrence from Cobra Kai.
Written and directed Riley Stearns, who previously gave us the darkly comic Faults, this a natural cousin of that Netflix (and former YouTube) series, mixing pitch-black comedy with a wry dissection of masculinity at his most toxic – the presence of an excellent Imogen Poots as the only female pupil in the dojo offers a clear example of another way to approach karate and self-defence. The result communicates its message loud and clear – this satire takes a deceptively low-key stance, but doesn’t pull its punches.
The Art of Self-Defense is available on Netflix UK until 3rd September, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.