A bookkeeper gets a lot more than when he bargains for in this dark comedy with a martial arts theme from filmmaker Riley Stearns.

Casey Davies is a bookkeeper who is seen as somewhat of an outcast. While he has the respect of his boss Grant, his co-workers see him differently. He spends his nights alone at home. However, one fateful night changes him. On his way home, he is mugged by a gang of motorcycle riding robbers. After time in the hospital, Casey considers buying a handgun but has to wait for the necessary paperwork to go through. However, one day, Casey finds a local karate school and decides to watch the class. After taking a free lesson, Casey decides to take up karate.

Under the eccentric Sensei, Casey finds himself consumed with karate both in and out of the dojo. When he’s promoted to yellow belt, he comes up with a way to help think of himself at his level. He even befriends Anna, a female instructor at the dojo who is faced with adversity due to her gender. However, amid the changes, Casey finds himself but soon learns things may be peachy now, but in the end, some events will change some things forever and it will take his newfound will for Casey to make everything right.

A major fad in the world of martial arts pop culture in recent years is that of the McDojo. For those unfamiliar with the term, it’s basically described as a B.S. martial arts school where anyone can earn rank or be led by a teacher who thinks they know the martial arts, but in reality, lacks the skills to become a master. This film, from writer-director Riley Stearns takes the idea of a McDojo and gives it meshing of self-confidence, hyper masculinity, and well, very dark comedy.

Jesse Eisenberg is one of those eccentric actors who may be seen mainly as a nerdy type character and while he made for an unhinged Lex Luthor in the one-time proposed DC Extended Universe, he seems more fit to play that nerd who finds confidence and perfects it here as Casey, who after being mugged, finds confidence through karate. It is seeing Casey gain this confidence that is the heart of the film as he finds himself eventually overcoming some of the obstacles in his way, such as confronting his co-workers, who seem him as an outcast, and even finally having had enough of his old life. Most of the comic portions revolve around Eisenberg, from his reacting to a bully at a supermarket to finding himself in a very uncomfortable situation after attending his first night class.

Alessandro Nivola is a joy to watch as the Sensei and it’s because he is so eccentric at playing a master you would expect in a McDojo and yet at the same time, he does show some skills. One can’t help but laugh at his showing his class what to do during the weekend while doing a kata but females will not like his views on their gender, which will explain why Imogen Poots’ Anna isn’t able to advance and it is that moment that can anger female viewers. That is, until we get to see Poots play a strong woman in Anna, from her introductory tirade on Casey for having his shoes on the mat to her pummeling a black belt who got rank before she rightfully deserved it. It is when Anna explains to Casey why she is so angry that one can only sympathize with her and hopes she gets her comeuppance.

For the karate scenes themselves, Mindy Kelly does quite a good job of choreographing the action. They have this feel of a throwback 80s style and seeing Nivola, Eisenberg, and Poots, along with Steve Terada (as black belt student Thomas) getting their chops and kicks in, they are quite enjoyable. And while they are quite fun, the third act of the film is where we see the darkness of dark comedy involved and it goes from 0 to 100 in a matter of minutes and there are quite a few shocking moments all in the name of self-defense and self-confidence, two aspects of learning the martial arts.

The Art of Self-Defense takes the martial arts comedy and gives it a very fun yet sinister look at the world of the McDojo, with excellent performances by Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, and Imogen Poots showing respectively a side of confidence, eccentricity, and equality all wrapped up in a quite insane package.


Universal Pictures and Bleeker Street presents an End Cue production. Director: Riley Stearns. Producers: Andrew Kortschak, Walter Kortschak, and Stephanie Whonsetler. Writer: Riley Stearns. Cinematography: Michael Ragen. Editing: Sarah Beth Shapiro.

Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, David Zellner, Phillip Andre Botello, Jason Burkey, Mike Brooks, Hauke Bahr, Davey Johnson.