By Derek May:
Sometimes you just want to shut off your brain for 90 minutes and immerse yourself in ass-kickery and belly laughs. In modern times, that type of film has become more and more rare, as the elusive formula that made movies like Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hours, Midnight Run, and even Hot Fuzz and Rush Hour, such enduring classics has remained hidden from most filmmakers. So what makes one work and another fall flat on its ass? I think a big part of it is respect for both components—the action and the comedy—meaning that they need to complement each other and not allow one to overwhelm the other.
With the release of Stuber, both writer Tripper Clancy and director Michael Dowse seem to home in on this concept with a modern take and a nostalgic sensibility. Dowse, known for raunchy fare such as Hulu’s Future Man and the 80’s throwback Take Me Home Tonight, has the pedigree to pull it off. Because aside from holding its own as a solid entry in the action-comedy pantheon, Stuber is also a loving homage to some of the great tropes of the genre. Along with a number of general callbacks, I counted homages to movies such as Commando, Terminator, and every John Woo film. It all demonstrates the loving care the creators have taken to make a funny and exhilarating adventure for contemporary audiences and aficionados alike.
The basic premise of the film is classic odd-couple friction, as hard-ass detective Vic Manning (Dave Bautista) is forced to enlist mind-mannered pushover Stu (Kumail Nanjiani) in taking down Oka Tedjo (Iko Uwais), the notorious gangland criminal who killed his partner. Classic! But there’s a nice bit of role reversal as Manning finds himself in an unusual and frustrating position of vulnerability after having morning LASIK surgery and subsequently being unable to see, much less drive. And so, desperate to keep his rating up, Uber driver Stu initially sets aside his innate anxiety to tag along on the adventure; and the deeper his involvement gets, the more it challenges him to rise up with untapped courage, confidence, and self-respect. The mismatched pair is naturally perfect for each other’s needs, and while that’s certainly obvious to the audience, it never feels so heavy handed that is detracts from enjoying the hilarious—and deadly—shenanigans.
Much of that is because of the likability of stars Nanjiani and Bautista. Nanjiani has been making great strides into the mainstream consciousness with work on everything from X-Files to Silicon Valley, but received extensive accolades for his writing and performing in 2017’s The Big Sick. His comedy pedigree is overwhelmingly impressive, with a smart, snarky style just shy of brash. As Stu, Nanjiani gets the chance to stay true to his comedy strengths while developing a real and relatable character. Poor Stu is a people pleaser, burying his own desires in order to hopefully ingratiate himself with friends and strangers alike, especially the unrequited love of business partner Becca (Glow’s Betty Gilpin). The nebbish, everyman quality is perfectly relatable, though Nanjiani still manages to quip his way through even the toughest situations, often at the hilarious expense of would-be-buddy Bautista.
The big man himself is no slouch, as Bautista has been stepping up his own comedy game for the last several years. Along with increasingly funnier turns as Drax in the Marvel films, Bautista has also dipped his toe into various other genres, from drama in the likes of Blade Runner 2049 and Hotel Artemis (a film I highly recommend) to plenty of action alongside men like Stallone in the Escape Plan franchise. Here, Bautista really gets to flex his muscles (zing!) as a man struggling to connect with the people around him—particularly his daughter—due in no small part to his obsession with taking down Tedjo.
As a child of the 80’s, I not only love to see musclebound gods smacking down evil-doers, I get a particular glee from watching those gods poke fun at themselves. Whether it’s Arnold in Kindergarten Cop or Dwayne Johnson as a Tooth Fairy, the idea just seems a natural fit and gets me into the theatre every time. Bautista is well aware of this and shows no ego or qualms about putting his image through the ringer. There are a few hilarious running gags about his size and strength that wink to the audience, but there’s also a clear intent to take the big guy down a peg or two, such as giving Manning a bit of paunch around the midsection. It all works for the aesthetic and dynamic that makes the action part believable and provides endless fodder for the mismatched comedy.
One intrinsic aspect of the genre is the need for a formidable bad guy. For the shadowy Tedjo, we have ever-soaring action star Iko Uwais, the Indonesian martial artist who came to prominence with 2011’s The Raid and recently in the action epic Triple Threat (action fans, definitely check that one out!). I’ve been a big fan of Uwais for a while now, and his performing skills have increased substantially over the years. While this may be his widest release to date (outside an obscure cameo in Star Wars: The Force Awakens), he doesn’t get a whole lot to do here outside the physical, which is one of the few disappointments of the film. That being said, sometimes the threat is best left enigmatic, and certainly it allows for plenty of time left to focus on our befuddled heroes.
Stuber scratches that itch for a rollicking good time, delivering the goods on both the action and comedy fronts and should satisfy fans of either genre. But make no mistake, like its classic brethren, there’s a reason for the R-rating, and audiences should expect plenty of blood splatter and raunchy jokes. In fact, based on a few trailers I was initially a little reticent that the humor might push too far for nothing more than shock value. But while there’s plenty you wouldn’t see coming, I was happily relieved by the astute level of humor. Once again, the filmmakers managed that proper balance, and everything flows quite naturally as one. That being said, if you’re shy about an F-bomb or a flashing penis, you might consider skipping this one.
For the rest of us, Stuber races to the finish line with ease and is a surefire shot of silly joy when we need to just let off a little steam. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, and don’t forget to leave a five-star rating.
YANG: The Art of Self-Defense
One of the greatest things about independent film is the opportunity it presents for experimentation. Stories and perspectives that might otherwise never be given voice have the chance to reach an audience desperate to hear and see something new that challenges them to think and engage rather than simply observe. And for filmmakers, it’s a chance to cross genres, break rules, and skew preconceptions.
Rising influencer Bleeker Street productions has taken the gamble on the substantial release of writer-director Riley Stearns’ new dark comedy The Art of Self Defense, and I hope this little gem is able to find the audience it deserves.
The basic story follows scrawny, socially inept Casey (Jesse Eisenberg) who decides to take up karate in order to conquer his victimhood following a brutal assault one fateful night. He finds an ideological role model in “Sensei” (Alessandro Nivola), who takes him down an increasingly darker path under the guise of mentorship. The journey tackles a number of thematic sociological points along the way, with the main focus being on the corrosive environment of toxic masculinity as a means to raise yourself up by tearing others down. It’s a timely and worthy topic, presented against the backdrop of a niche with an infamous history with this issue: the martial arts.
Ok, so let me address this head-on: I’ve been involved in the study and teaching of the martial arts for over thirty years now. I’ve seen every aspect from inside and out, the amazing and the horrific. So when I say that what Stearns has managed to capture here is all-too probable in the martial realm, please believe it. Is much of it outlandish? An outlier against the norm? Thankfully, yes. But is it possible, even probable? Unfortunately, also yes. I’ve seen the cult-like atmosphere that sucks in the lonely, the damaged, who can turn a villainous, cartoonish leader into an infallible god-like figure. I’ve seen firsthand martial artists try to become Batman-like vigilantes, taking to the streets to put their nebulous skills to use (in college, to my astonishment, I was actually asked to join a group like this—I declined). And thus, the absurdly comical path that Casey treads from wide-eyed acolyte to over-reactionary blowhard is not only relatable, but flat out genuine.
If you find that disturbing, then Stearns likely has you right where he wants you. He tempers the blows with a brilliantly balanced mixture of bone-crunching violence and laugh-out-loud humor. To make it even more bearable, the actors all deliver in a sort of detached, deadpan style that heightens the surreal nature of the film and makes it feel just shy of our reality, even though we know it sadly isn’t. Though the vast majority of the bloody horror happens off-screen, judicious use of sound and editing really sell the brutality, but still allow us to smile again moments later.
The fundamental conflict is an age old one between student and “master.” In this case, Casey feels so broken that he allows himself to be rebuilt in his teacher’s image, despite his own logical reservations. Eisenberg is known for playing the nebbish, highly-intelligent outcast who either turns into the hero (as in Zombieland) or the villain (as in Batman v. Superman; Dawn of Justice). Here, he presents a sort of wounded puppy that the audience initially feels such sympathy for that we not only understand his complete immersion into his new hobby but root for him to go deeper—until it’s too late. But Eisenberg never lets Casey stray too far from his core values, and so when he does finally rise on his own (albeit in a helluva unique way), it doesn’t feel at all out of character.
In the other corner, we have Nivola as Sensei, a man clearly holding in some dark and disturbing psychological issues. I won’t spoil the journey, but we gather early on that something is wrong, but Nivola plays it just appealing enough that we fall for his charms just as easily as Casey does. His class lectures begin often insightfully relevant, using much the same language I’ve used in my own classes (which was a little disturbing by the end). But as the cracks reveal themselves, we see that he’s precisely the sort of charlatan I mentioned above, the type who likely had some minimal training and then made up a lineage and a history to elevate himself into a position of power and dominion over others.
Nivola represents the apex of toxic masculinity, the type who fears his own innate vulnerability and shuns any notion or suggestion of femininity. He seduces Casey into his mindset, which we can see ripple throughout multiple other characters. But it is Anna, played my Imogen Poots, who receives the brunt of this twisted ideology. Clearly the toughest, most skilled, and most deserving member of the dojo, she is patronized and shunned because of her gender. But in doing so, she is able to provide an alternative perspective for Casey and helps him see Sensei and his teachings for what they are, as well as reminding him of his fundamental values. But she’s not necessarily immune to it all herself, as we can see how that toxic mindset isn’t limited to affecting men, and Poots does an amazing job of crafting a woman who is both strong and independent and yet still tethered to the whims of men by the choices she’s made.
Alright, so all that sounds heavy, but let me assure you that the movie is indeed a fun romp. As I said, what makes independent films like this so rich is that it can find unique ways to hold the audience’s attention while addressing far more philosophical ideas. Seriously, I laughed at this about as much as I did in Stuber, though for very different reasons. The film is completely self-aware, and wants to give you a good time. And in one of my favorite bits of behind the scenes irony, for a movie tackling masculinity head on, all the martial arts in the film were choreographed by a woman: stuntperson/coordinator Mindy Kelly. Who’s got the last laugh now?!
The Art of Self-Defense is a masterful concoction of gritty brutality and absurdist humor. If you’re a martial artist, I’d dub it an absolute must-see. But even if you’re not, there’s enough outlandish comedy and story twists to keep you engaged while making you think. The performances are so subtle and low-key that I doubt they’ll receive the recognition they deserve, but they’re worth the price of admission in themselves. If you enjoy the quirky, the off-kilter, the farcical, then head out to your local theatre and support independent films like this one. It’s a kick!