Every six years, an alien comes to Earth looking for a fight. This has happened for generations. As a result, every six years, a team of expert martial artists must face him, using techniques this alien himself passed down centuries ago. If they don’t, everyone on Earth will die. Is Nicolas Cage up to the task?
That’s the premise co-writer and director Dimitri Logothetis concocted for this latest film, Jiu Jitsu. The concept was so out there, before he made it into a screenplay, he decided to first turn it into a comic book.
“It was the best way for me to actually see whether or not it would make a good movie,” Logothetis told io9 over a video chat recently. “I just wanted to actually be able to see it and visualize it. And it was really more of a storyboard, frankly, because I’m not in the comic book business. It just really helped to spur the creative process.”
The subsequent script, which Logothetis co-wrote with Jim McGrath, uses comic book frames to help tell and steer the story. A story begins with a man named Jake (martial artist Alain Moussi) running for his life. Soon, we find out Jake has a long, storied past, and his running has triggered something very bad. It made the ancient warrior alien, Brax, angry. And ladies and gentleman, we do not like Brax when he’s angry.
“What exactly is it that our bad guy alien wants? What he wants is he wants a challenge,” Logothetis said. “If you run from him, he’ll just kill you. If you stand and face him in a challenge, he will fight you with honor. And so we came up with all these rules that I think really help the audience get into it.”
While the story is obviously cool on its own, Logothetis—who recently directed Kickboxer: Vengence and Kickboxer: Retaliation back to back—got himself an absolute killer cast to boot. He began with Moussi, a sixth-degree jiu-jitsu master who worked with the director on both Kickboxers. For that character’s mentor though, Logothetis knew they needed someone special.
“[After Moussi] I started to go after the sort of mentor-ish part. And we were looking at Bruce Willis for a while,” Logothetis said. “Then we ended up with the best possible [person]. We ended up with a terrific actor.”
That “terrific actor” is the man, the myth, the legend himself Nicolas Cage. And once Cage was on board, getting actors like Tony Jaa (Ong Bak), Frank Grillo (Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Marie Avgeropoulos (The 100), and JuJu Chan (Crouching Tiger 2) was fairly straight forward. “And I warned all the people that I got into the film, I said, ‘Look, you guys. We might get killed with this when it comes to reviews.’ But I said, ‘I assure you, it’s going to be a lot of fun. The audience is gonna love it.’”
One of the coolest ways Logothetis attempts to deliver on that promise is a very unique scene early in the film. Jake is being rescued by a mysterious stranger and as the two battle their way to freedom, the camera initially shifts to Jake’s point of view, like something out of a first-person shooter. From there, almost as if the camera popped out of Jake’s body and falls to the floor, the shot transitions into a third-person view. Jake then steps back and kind of reabsorbs the camera, as everything goes back to first-person.
“Almost everybody today likes to play video games,” Logothetis said when asked about the unique scene. “So I thought to myself, if I started that as a video game sequence where you actually see the POV and then you actually see him leap out into the game itself, that’s something as you’re playing a video game you want to be able to do. You want to be able to leap into the screen and be that guy. And so I delivered that to you.”
Aliens, video games, comic books—initially, none of this feels like it fits in a movie called Jiu Jitsu. When you hear that title, someone might think it’s a movie about mixed martial arts or the UFC. However, Logothetis pointed out the title is meant to add to the mystery.
“I tried to base it in reality, meaning there’s really no genesis of jiu-jitsu,” he said. “A lot of guys online will sit there and they talk about BJJ which is Brazilian jiu-jitsu. But that’s very recent. If you go back and try to find the origins of jiu-jitsu you’ll see 2,000 years, 3,000 years, perhaps it’s Japan, perhaps it’s India, but they’re not really quite sure where it comes from, which sort of set a perfect tone.” So, sure, maybe aliens.
With a killer cast, deep mythology, and strong visual style, Logothetis believes no matter what the critics might end up saying, Jiu Jitsu is the perfect movie for 2020. He very well may be right.
“Look, especially today, we need to escape,” the director said. “So the kind of stuff that I do is, I come up with protagonists that kick the shit out of the bad guy. And at the end of the day, you’re having a beer and you’re enjoying yourself, and you forget about whatever the hell it is you’re thinking about on the news for an hour and a half. You’re not gonna do better than that, man.”
Jiu Jitsu hits select theaters, on-demand, and digital on November 20.
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