October 21, 2019  (Web Review)

The Art of Self-Defense

Universal, 105 min., R, DVD: $22.99, Blu-ray: $34.99, Oct. 15

Reviewer rating: 3.0/4

For those who might relish seeing The Karate Kid turned perversely upside-down to reveal the dark underbelly of what it means to become macho (or Macchio), filmmaker Riley Stearns’s weird, deadpan comedy provides the opportunity. Casey Davies, played by Jesse Eisenberg, is a quintessential dweeb—a wimpy accountant who lives alone (except for his dachshund) and has no friends. Late one night he is badly beaten by a bunch of black-clothed, helmeted motorcycle thugs. This assault eventually leads Casey to a karate dojo, where the dictatorial Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) presides over a clutch of devoted acolytes—all men, except for Anna (Imogen Poots), who Sensei treats with disdain despite her ability. Casey becomes a fanatical follower of their eerily confident leader, who calmly issues goofy pronouncements that his students swallow without a murmur. Casey’s faith in Sensei eventually unravels after he violates the rules by entering the dojo’s inner sanctum and discovering its secrets, leading to a confrontation with Sensei that the student resolves with a grimly comic twist. With his fluttery, nervous manner, Eisenberg is the perfect Casey, but Nivola is the true revelation, portraying Sensei as a genuinely chilling anti-Miyagi. Made even stranger by visuals that mix dingy naturalism with surrealistic splashes of color and disorienting lighting, the film is deliberately off-kilter, audaciously quirky, wickedly funny, and genuinely disturbing. Recommended. [Note: DVD/Blu-ray extras include cast and crew interviews (18 min.) and “An Important Message from Sensei” segment (3 min.). Exclusive to the Blu-ray release is a bonus digital copy of the film. Bottom line: a small extras package for this surprisingly good sleeper.] (F. Swietek)