The Art Of Self-Defense

Brief synopsis:

Casey is a diffident and somewhat reclusive accountant, who decides that he needs to protect himself after getting beaten up whilst out getting dog food for his dachshund dog. He tries to purchase a handgun but is told they need to do a background check, and he would have to wait to take it home.

Passing a karate school, curiosity takes him in to watch a class. He is immediately hooked and decides to take up the martial art. It soon becomes apparent that his sensei is not a normal martial arts instructor.

Is it any good?

The Art Of Self-Defense is both amusing and dark, with brilliant performances from the main protagonists. Definitely not a conventional film, and told in a quirky, understated fashion, The Art Of Self-Defense is worth a watch.

Spoiler territory:

Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) lives alone with his small dachshund dog. Working as an accountant, his work colleagues find him odd and view him with disdain when he tries to join in the conversation they are having, moaning about their boss, Grant (Hauke Bahr).

Casey is seen as a bit of a company favourite, as Grant seems to give him preferential treatment. On his way home from work, Casey is confronted by an anonymous group of motorcyclists. They chase him, and even as he begs, give him a beatdown. Casey is beaten to such an extent he ends up in the hospital.

Fearing for his safety after the ordeal, Casey is too afraid to even go out and buy dog food. He decides to purchase a handgun. The shop owner helps him to pick out the gun but tells him he will have to wait a week to collect the gun. Casey leaves the store. On his way home he stops at a small karate dojo.

The instructor, Sensei (Alessandro Nivola), is explaining aspects of the martial art to a group of rapt students. Casey is sold. The next evening, he returns to join. There is a different class being taught. It is a children’s class, and the instructor is Anna (Imogen Poots). Casey approaches her after the class, breaking one of the cardinal rules of the dojo: He steps onto the mat whilst still wearing his shoes.

Anna brusquely tells him to get his shoes off the mat. Apologising, Casey asks about joining the class. She tells him to come back the next day. Returning the next evening, Casey meets the enigmatic Sensei. Casey is befriended by Henry (David Zellner), who tells him about their class and about the black stripe that Casey notices on some of the students’ belts.

Henry tells him it is for the night class. He is a little excited, as he tells him as he believes he is going to get asked to join the night class. In the class, Sensei addresses the class and invites one of the class to his special, invitation-only, night class. It is not Henry.

In the class, Casey is paired with Kennith (Phillip Andre Botello). He quickly finds out that the class is not for the faint of heart, as he is struck and kicked hard by Kennith. Casey is hooked on the class, practising and attending nightly, Sensei encouraging his obvious zeal. Casey gets a call from the gun shop but tells the owner he no longer needs a gun.

Sensei has another announcement. He promotes Thomas (Steve Terada) to an instructor, even though he has Anna, who instructs the children, in the class. She is, notably, the only female in the class. Casey talks to Anna. She tries to warn him not to get involved with the club.

Casey is still off work after the attack, and Grant calls him telling him that he has run out of holiday days and needs to return to work. An emboldened, by his newfound skills, Casey, returns to work. He bullies the same colleagues who viewed him with disdain, forcing them to do press-ups with him.

He loses his job when he punches Grant in the throat for asking for some documents. Now unemployed, Casey focuses even more on his karate. He tells Sensei about his new status of unemployment. Sensei employs him to organise his accounts. Sensei invites Casey to the night class. Henry sees that Casey has the invite, and decides he will go along as well.

The night class proves to be darker than the normal class. Sensei begins the class by inviting Henry to the front of the class and breaking his arm for coming to the class without an invitation. Anna beats Thomas unconscious in front of the class.

After the class, the class pair off and strip so as to exchange massages. Sensei takes Casey to Anna’s changing area, explaining that, as he is not yet strong enough to massage one of the men, he will massage and be massaged by Anna.

Later in the night, Casey gets a call from Sensei. He tells him that he has found one of the men who attacked him. Casey goes to meet him. Sensei tells him the man is in a bar and points to a motorcycle, saying it is his. A drunken man comes staggering out of the bar. “It is him,” Sensei insists. Casey is not sure.

Casey approaches the man and asks him if he recognises him. Insensible with drink, the man can barely stand up. Sensei insists that Casey takes revenge. Casey knocks the man to the floor, the man hitting his head as he falls. He sees Sensei filming him. He takes the drunk man’s keys and goes to the motorbike. They are not for the bike.

Sensei invites him out on a special mission the next night. The night class go out on motorcycles. Casey is told to ride with Anna. They are looking for someone to attack. Anna sees someone and approaches them. The man has a gun and, feeling threatened, shoots her in the leg. Casey beats the man to a pulp. Casey takes Anna to get help for her wound.

Casey confronts Sensei but is easily bested. He decides to return to the dojo late at night, and check out Sensei’s office. After discovering Henry’s hanging corpse in the dojo, he finds tapes of all the students doing incriminating things.

The next day, Sensei comes in and finds Henry hanged in the dojo. He takes him down and puts his body in the incinerator. Casey comes to see Sensei. He challenges him to a fight. They meet later in the night, in front of the class. Casey shoots him dead. He tells the class that there are going to be some changes. He puts Anna in charge of the school. The end.

The Art Of Self-Defense is a quirky dark comedy, with elements of Fincher’s Fight Club, with Eisenberg channelling his best autistic persona as Casey, and Nivola brilliant as the psychopathic Sensei. Poots’s Anna is, bravely, not utilised as a love interest, not in the traditional way. Though Casey reacts after she gets shot, there is no story for a Casey and Anna union.

Written and directed by Riley Stearns, The Art Of Self-Defense is an unexpected film that moves at a good pace, and has good performances from all involved. At 144 minutes long, the film potters along quite nicely, with Stearns fashioning a tight tale gently ribbing the machoism of martial arts.

The Art Of Self-Defense is not for everyone. Nivola’s Sensei is cruel and manipulative, and the inhabitants of the night class are weak-minded, allowing Sensei to instigate random attacks on strangers in some macho ritual. Though Anna explains her reasons for remaining in a class and environment where she is not respected, the reasoning is quite feeble.

It is only the incriminating tapes that allow Sensei to hold sway over their group. Still, it is a little odd that none of the group seemed to resent him. All that being said, I did enjoy The Art Of Self-Defense and feel it is worth a watch.

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