SYNOPSIS: Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) just can’t seem to win. Attacked on the street, humiliated at his job and even emasculated by his dog, he joins a local karate dojo led by the enigmatic Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) to learn how to defend himself. In the midst of his training, Casey becomes friendly with a female instructor (Imogen Poots) and soon realizes he is caught in a bizarre world of outcasts, fraternal rituals and hilarious hyper-masculinity.


Let’s be honest right from the start, The Art of Self-Defense is not a movie for everyone. You can call it a dark comedy in the vein of the Coen Brothers but you must also be warned that it’s shocking at times and it doesn’t really make a lot of sense.    

Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) is a lonely, mild-mannered and timid accountant whose only companion is his pet dachshund. One night on the way home after buying pet food, he is brutally assaulted by a motorcycle gang. While recuperating, Casey decides to buy a firearm for self-defence but he is then later intrigued by a charismatic Sensei (Alessandro Nivola from Jurassic Park III) in a karate dojo. Hence, Casey starts to attend classes under the guidance of Sensei. But the seemingly knowledgeable Sensei might not be what he is as Casey slowly discovers dark secrets behind the man he so admires. 

Despite the offbeat humour, The Art of Self-Defense is much loved by critics. However, it’s not a film that is known or watched by the public. Perhaps it’s an indie film that never has the publicity budget although some critics called it an amusing satire on toxic masculinity, a grittier version of David Fincher’s Fight Club etc. Unfortunately, this reviewer isn’t much of a fan of this odd, dysfunctional flick about erratic social behavior, absurdities and karate fighting.    

First of all, none of the Sensei’s actions make much sense or motivation. Why is he conducting a “night class” to serve his psychotic actions? Why are there no consequences of people being killed or hurt? Is this a pre-apocalypse kind of thing? There seems to be a deeper message hidden under director and writer Riley Stearns’ tale. Basically, common sense doesn’t apply if you plan on watching the film or appreciating Stearns’ brand of humour. 

Jesse Eisenberg is an expert (not just a yellow-belt Karate master) when it comes to playing the typical socially awkward guy and it’s no difference in The Art of Self-Defense. Alessandro Nivola on the other hand is brilliant as the mysterious, ruthless Sensei. English actress Imogen Poots (Fright Night) stars as Anna, the neglected disciple of Sensei because of gender preferences, a character that deserved far more screentime than the boring Casey.   

The Art of Self-Defense has a few laugh-out-loud moments but it’s quickly dispersed by its occasional violence and extreme jarring tone. No doubt it’s an intriguing film throughout as you are likely curious about the outcome between the relationship of Casey and Sensei. 


An Important Message from Sensei is a spoof on bygone VHS ads and it stars none other than Sensei. Some key cast members and filmmakers gave their insights and outputs in Cast and Crew Interviews and the last extra feature is Outtakes


Intended or not, the film looks cheap on DVD. I guess it’s an intended choice by the filmmakers.  The 5.1 sounds ok since it’s dialogue driven with the exception of occasional loud outbursts.  



Review by Linus Tee



Genre: Comedy
Starring: Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, Imogen Poots, Steve Terada, Phillip Andre Botello, David Zellner, Hauke Bahr, Jason Burkey
Director: Riley Stearns
Rating: M18 (Nudity and Some Violence)
Year Made: 2019


- An Important Message from Sensei
- Cast and Crew Interviews
- Outtakes


Languages: English
Subtitles: English/Cantonese/Mandarin/Korea/Thai
Aspect Ratio: 2.39:1
Sound: Dolby Digital 5.1
Running Time: 1 hr 44 mins
Region Code: 3