Writer-director Riley Stearns is obviously an admirer of martial arts, and with his sophomore feature “The Art of Self-Defense” he could have showed how noble things like self-defense and martial arts get co-opted by power, yet Stearns takes it a step further and argues in his film that power originates from “toxic masculinity”, a social engineering and artificial constructional term that wants to muddle and disorient the very core of genetic makeup. This isn’t so much a gender issue, in other words power which has always been humanities thirst and ultimate demise ever since the origins of early civilization that still continues today with governments overreaching their power to control humanity. The dojo on display here shows how power is abused and manipulated, yet the message of “toxic masculinity” is used instead of the theme of “the abuse of power” , and the theme here is overstated and simplistic, not to mention very heavy-handed that comes off very redundant.
The film stars Jesse Eisenberg as a lonely and by-the-books account named Casey Davies, who is rudely despised by his locker-room style co-workers, and he is an uptight and monotone wimp who can’t stand up for himself. After being viciously mugged one night by a gang of sport motorcyclists after going out for a late night walk to get his dog some generic dog food, Casey decides to ponder what it takes to defend himself. He applies for a handgun permit, but must await a though background check, and Casey eventually discovers a local karate dojo that is ran by a man that only goes by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). Completely fascinated with martial arts and Sensei, Casey ends up becoming more disciplined and only focused with martial arts, that leads to Casey standing up for himself against his co-workers and even assaulting his boss, in which Sensei continues to promises him to “Become what you fear”.
Casey ends up becoming more confident, wiser, and disciplined as he is told by fellow classmates to embrace the alpha-male status with arrogance, only to discover that Sensei is actually a sociopath that is behind sexism in his dojo, that even means holding Anna (Imogen Poots) a talented and powerful brown belt that is trapped in her rank back due to being a woman. Casey ends up taking night classes only to discover more dark secrets that Sensei is also a black-mailer behind senseless and brutal violence that others in the dojo are forced and coerced into, and many people in the dojo are just too intimidated by him to stand up against the brutality.
The problem with the film is Stern’s overreaching tone and inconsistency, which is often a challenging balance to maintain while crafting dark comedies. While there is certainly dark wit to be found in his film, the actors deliver such strident deadpan that it ultimately undermines all comedic value, making the film feel very jarring with uneven tonal shifts, conspicuous ideas, severe predictability, and unfunny comedy.
In the film we see Casey’s transformation of liking little dogs, french things, modern contemporary music only for him to be convinced to like larger dogs, German and Russian things, and of course heavy metal. Casey ends up experiencing and even participating in even more violence, and then we see a twist that is wholly predictable. Casey eventually discovers the men in the dojo are complete hypocrites, and the approach is very satirical, but we never truly feel the experience with Casey’s journey. Instead it feels more like an ineffective feminist lecture about the dangers of “toxic masculinity” that lacks inventiveness and complexity. We get a cautionary tale of the machismo with no subtext as the characters read the redundant themes out loud with hit-or-miss dully deadpan execution. The end result is a occasionally amusing film that starts off with great comedic momentum that ends up becoming the same and dull lecture we have already seen in countless other mediums and platforms, that masculinity is bad and needs to be punished, its an exhausting and tedious lecture indeed.