Review: 'The Art of Self-Defense' knows karate and crazy

Jesse Eisenberg stars in dark comedy that packs a surprising punch

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
Imogen Poots and Jesse Eisenberg in "The Art of Self-Defense."

Like a roundhouse kick to the face, you don't see "The Art of Self-Defense" coming. 

This eccentric dark comedy is like "Fight Club" mixed with "The Foot Fist Way." It's delivered in a droll style wherein the characters' dialogue sounds like they're reading an instruction manual, and it sneaks up on viewers by eventually morphing itself into a compelling thriller.   

Jesse Eisenberg brings a dialed-down version of his trademark nervous energy to Casey, a mild-mannered accountant who's riddled with social anxiety. One night he's jumped by a motorcycle gang who beats him senseless and leaves him lying in the street. To fight back — or at least to gain the courage to attempt to fight back — he enlists in karate classes, taught by a local sensei who goes by the name Sensei.

Alessandro Nivola is eerily effective as Sensei, an expressionless ball of masculinity who takes Casey on as his pet project. He teaches him to fight, but also to carry himself in the most stereotypically aggressive way possible. When Casey tells him he enjoys adult contemporary music, Sensei instructs him to listen to metal instead. "It's the toughest music there is," he tells his pupil. 

Casey slowly learns the truth about Sensei and his dojo, and how he came to walk through its doors. And writer-director Riley Stearns whips up a compelling mixture of suspense and satire, managing to land comfortably between the two. To further throw things off, Stearns sets his story in what feels like the early-to-mid '90s but never mentions the timeframe, only hints at it with some prominently placed VHS tapes. If offbeat is the goal, Stearns earns his black belt. 

'The Art of Self-Defense'


Rated R: for violence, sexual content, graphic nudity and language

Running time: 104 minutes