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Casey At The Dojo: The Art Of Self-Defense

Updated on August 3, 2019


Nobody feels good when perceived as weak by others. Casey Davies doesn't do anything about that until he falls victim to a mugging in The Art Of Self-Defense. Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) works as an accountant at a business where he hears co-workers talking tough about their boss and making anyone feel uncomfortable when they are in the break room. As he heads home from a grocery run, Casey gets attacked by a group of motorcyclists who first ask him if he has a gun on him. As he recovers from his injuries and uses personal time from work, Casey decides to apply for a gun permit. He also enrolls in a karate class where the Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) extols the virtues of the martial while stating the use of a gun is imprecise. Casey becomes so hooked on the training, his boss has to order him back to work when he's about to exhaust his personal time.

During his training, Casey also gets to know Anna (Imogen Poots), a brown belt who teaches the younger karate students. In time, Casey earns a color upgrade from white to yellow belt. The training also begins to affect him. He loses his job after he uses some of his karate skills on his boss. Sensei, offers Casey a job as the academy's accountant, as well as the chance to be a part of the evening classes he teaches. Anna is also one of the night students. He soon learns that the evening sessions aren't as much about the martial art as it is about the personal agenda of Sensei and these students.


The Art Of Self-Defense is an interesting statement drama from writer-director Riley Stearns. The actions should not be taken literally, as they are meant to serve as a statement about toxic masculinity. Before his attack, Casey felt uncomfortable in the break room. After attending classes, he takes control of that place. When Sensei takes a liking to him, Casey starts to distance himself from all of the things Sensei perceives as weak, even if Casey likes those things. He changes his taste in music, and adopts a get-tough stance with his dachshund. Anna has problems of her own finding acceptance in a culture that grudgingly accepts her strength, even as he easily handles a black belt in martial combat. Stearns even throws a noir element into the story, as Casey and Anna must keep some of their activities a secret. The film suffers a bit from some slow pacing, and some of the action is hard to take.

Eisenberg is very good as Casey, a man who doesn't change outwardly, but his actions demonstrate he's a changed man. He becomes the man his co-workers only talk about becoming. He buys into the notion that his feet should serve as his fists. Sensei is one of the more prominent roles Nivola has had, but he sells Casey on an unrealistic notion of manhood. Sensei tells stories about the late Grand Master who once ran the academy, and is especially fond of one tale how Grand Master that leader killed a man in a most unlikely way. Sensei also makes the ultimate decision on who attends night classes, as day student Henry (David Zellner) learns when he comes to a class uninvited. Poots might be best known for her role in 28 Weeks Later, but she brings a toughness to Anna, who keeps getting the message that she won't get equal treatment from Sensei, no matter what she does. She also recognizes that Casey isn't the same sort of man that Sensei is, and knows that danger potentially awaits Casey.


The Art Of Self-Defense not only looks at a culture where men feel a need to defend themselves through violence, but the film also quietly states that defending the less "manly" aspects of manhood is just as important. There is nothing wrong with the way Casey Davies lived his life before his mugging. After the incident, though, he becomes obsessed with reinventing himself, and showing that he is tough enough to face any situation. Part of manhood - especially as an adult - is making a living, which Casey had done successfully. He will never need to fight another person in order to audit or to balance books. In order to get past a traumatic event, though, Casey eventually overcompensates, and invites a bit of the toxic atmosphere of his classes become a part of him.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give The Art Of Self-Defense three stars. Martial art distorted.

The Art Of Self-Defense trailer

© 2019 Pat Mills


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