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The Art of Self-Defense (2019) | Movie Review |

Originally, Martial Arts was a form of self-defense and attack that humans have been practicing  for centuries over the course of history. As a form of self-defense, martial arts predate guns by hundreds of years. The Art of Self-Defense, a film written and directed by Riley Stearns is a dark comedy that is a period piece that examines toxic masculinity in a thought proving way. The Bleecker Street distributed film stars Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola and Imogen Poots and is set sometime during the 1990s. After a lonely accountant is randomly attacked on the streets, he enlists in a karate class to learn how to defend himself. Spoilers after the trailer


As a dark-comedy, The Art of Self-Defense is one of the funniest films of the year. The whole film is delivered in a deadpan yet over exaggerated way. The film wastes no time letting the audience know that Casey Davies (Jesse Eisenberg) is an awkward outcast who lacks intestinal fortitude. The man can’t even go to a cafe without people heckling him and treating him as a joke. When he’s at work, his co-workers do not respect him in the slightest and they talk down to him right in front of him without any regard.

Jesse Eisenberg is known for taking on these socially awkward roles and making the most out of them. He’s walking home one night and a motorcycle gang randomly attacks him and they nearly beat him to death. The beating is graphic, yet it is presented in a comical way that it never feels uncomfortable to watch.

After recovering from his injuries, the awkward man in his 30s is shaken up but wants to find ways to defend himself so he goes to the store to purchase a gun. The film makes light of the situation at the gun shop and Davies’ awkwardness adds to the humor. The clerk at the gun shop drops a few jewels about the effects that owning a gun can have on you and others. Stats about how households with guns increase the child mortality rate, suicides and revenge crimes. He even tells Casey that he’ll have to wait  for his paperwork to process before he can own a gun. These little details are small but help make The Art of Self-Defense an educational film too.

Combative Confidence

Before he was beaten an inch of his life, Casey’s assailants asked if he had a gun to make sure he was easy pickings. Since the assault, Casey’s low confidence has hit rock bottom so he ends up joining a karate class taught by Sensei (Alessandro Nivola). On a side note, Alessandro Nivola looks like Ryan Reynolds.

After shadowing the class for a one week free trial, Casey decides to sign up for the class and Sensei becomes the de facto big brother to him. Casey is overjoyed with the inclusion and friends he’s made which is great for his character arc. He’s still awkward and weird but the karate class has given him a renewed sense of confidence. Sensei teaches him to be more masculine and tells him to upgrade his music tastes from Adult Contemporary to Hard Rock.

IMDB/The Art of Self-Defense

Sensei is a caricature of toxic masculinity.  While instructing his class he has a knack for belittling his students and his only female student Anna (Imogen Poots) is ostracized compared to her male counterparts. He’s also a moron. The Grandmaster is the man who taught Sensei karate and Sensei believes that the Grandmaster killed the other Grandmasters in a fight to the death by pushing his index finger through their school. This technique is so sacred that not even Sensei learned how to do it and Grandmaster has a rainbow belt since he defeated the others.

IMDB/The Art of Self-Defense

The problem with the karate element of the film is that it makes the film’s twist very predictable. Sensei’s class are the ones that jumped Casey. This was made even more obvious by the fact that when Casey was jumped the perpetrators were using martial arts tactics. The film tries to explore the thriller

IMDB/The Art of Self-Defense

Anna has the smallest role in the film as her character is the biggest victim of Sensei’s masculinity. Sure Casey gets beat down, his dog killed and his trust violated by Sensei but by the end of the film he gets his revenge whereas Anna does not. Anna has been working at the dojo and is far more qualified than her male counterparts but she does not have the option of leaving due to Sensei’s strong arm regime. Since the karate class moonlights as a motorcycle gang, Anna is too valuable, so she’s regulated to being an over qualified instructor and getting dress in a storage closet. Her character’s arc is to show the audience how toxic masculinity affects women, and Riley Stearns’ writing makes that message clear.

Final Thoughts

The Art of Self-Defense delivers for those that are fans of dark-comedy and deadpan humor. Director and writer Riley Stearns knows how to craft a film that has a serious message without sacrificing the tone of the film. Every joke has a payoff, especially the one with the Grandmaster. The thriller element the film toyed with could’ve been better but it wasn’t a huge hindrance. Jesse Eisenberg was perfectly cast for this role and the only other person in the world who could have given him a run for his money is Michael Cera. Eisenberg’s performance is the type of performance that makes something as topical as toxic masculinity something that we can laugh at yet digest the big picture. If you’re looking to watch something funny then don’t be triggered, instead observe The Art of Self-Defense.



[Fresh Horchata]



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[All Mames Wey]

The Art of Self-Defense was released in theaters July 12, 2019.

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