July 30, 2019– I had the opportunity to screen Riley Stearns’ film, The Art of Self-Defense, two weeks ago; however, I deliberately took some time to post this review. I have seen and reviewed more films in my life than I can remember. While I am not above being shocked, it is rare that the sensation lingers on for as long after I have left the theater as it did with this one.
The Art of Self-Defense, from Bleecker Street Media, is worth seeing, whether you are a martial artist or not. It has a deliberate nature to its script, its dialogue, and its filming. It is deeply disturbing, yet simultaneously comedic. Nothing about this film is gratuitous. The acting by Jesse Eisenberg and the entire cast is superb. Mindy Kelly, the martial arts sensation, whom I interviewed last week for Taekwondo Life Magazine’s Podcast, did a spectacular job of creating realism in the stunt and fight choreography.
For martial artists the film deals with familiar themes- person gets bullied and embarks on a path into martial arts training to improve their self confidence or defend themselves. That’s the story of the Karate Kid, isn’t it? Well, that may be where the comparison between John Avildsen’s 1984 film and this one ends. Jesse Eisenberg is no Daniel LaRusso and Alessandro Nivola, as his Master, no Mr. Miyagi.
This film does take on the subject of what has now become commonly known as “toxic masculinity” in the martial arts realm and in society. It addresses, in a powerful way, how all of the things that draw people into the martial arts and keeps them there can, when taken to extremes, fuel toxic, narcissistic, and dangerous behavior. The film inadvertently reminded me how, when things go as they should, the Dojang is the “safest” place for the gathering of like minded individuals in search of mental and physical development. I have had the good fortune in my life to walk into the doorway of the right Dojang.
Mindy Kelly headed up the stunt and martial arts choreography on the film. She is the first woman to do so in a major motion picture. In interviewing her she advised me that having a strong and talented woman in this position came from Riley Stearns’ desire to “Balance out the male energies on the set.” This is not surprising. If you see The Art of Self-Defense and understand that the portrayal of toxically masculine behavior is sardonic, rather than a commercial for it, then you understand why Stearns sought a balance against the hyper-masculinity of an almost all male cast.
My only fear in coming out of the film is that it might be perceived by both martial artists and non-practitioners as an indictment of the practice of the martial arts itself. Equation- I study the martial arts, therefore, I will become what I see in the film. That is not the case. It is obvious that Stearns, a Jiu-Jitsu competitor himself, has great respect for the practice of the martial arts and what occurs in the Dojang; however, it is also obvious that he understands how the dangers of the concepts in the wrong hands could go off the rails.
As a martial arts school owner some people will walk through your door because they have a deep need to fill a gap in their lives, or to ease a pain, or overcome their fear. There is nobility in guiding them to achieving greatness from within and understanding, as we like to say, “it isn’t about the kicking and punching“, it’s about living your best life. To exploit that vulnerability is not the true practice of the martial arts, no matter what belt you wear around your waste, or what title you give yourself. This is the message of this film for me.
An affirmation of Stearns’ respect for the arts was his selection of a Mindy Kelly, a serious martial artist, to direct the stunt choreography and martial arts scenes. Unlike other mainstream films, where training sequences lack any kind of realism, Kelly’s meticulous work makes both the training and fight scenes very believable. Kelly attributes it to the strength of her actors, most of which had a short window of training between hiring and filming. It is clearly more than that. She is a gifted teacher and understands what works on screen. Even for the trained martial artist viewing the film, the nuances between Eisenbergs’s skill set as a yellow belt and his senior belts’ fluidity and skill are realistic and noteworthy. While there may be elements of the film that are “over the top”, the training sequences do not fall into this category.
I highly recommend The Art of Self-Defense.