At The Movies

Soft guys who pack a mean punch

Slugfests in the spotlight include The Art Of Self Defense, Fight Club and Scott Pilgrim Vs The World

The protests raging across the United States and the world against racism and police brutality coincide with the arrival of the excellent The Art Of Self Defense (M18, 100 minutes, HBO Go and HBO, June 22, 10am, 4 Stars) on streaming.

Never released in cinemas in Singapore, it is a look at the violent fantasy at the heart of the American idea of manhood: that a "real" man is the one who dominates.

That idea, say many, is why the police choke citizens and break the skulls of protesters. It also explains United States President Donald Trump's tweets in which he frequently vows to "get tough" with enemies.

In structure, Self Defense resembles another semi-comic satire about manhood, Fight Club (M18, 139 minutes, 1999, HBO Go and $4.98 to rent on iTunes, 3 Stars). In both, a nebbish becomes the acolyte of a tough guy. The mentorship changes the former's life for the better - at first.

Casey, played by Jesse Eisenberg at his nervy, wide-eyed best, is weak, physically and mentally.

Bullied at his office job and despised everywhere else, things reach a breaking point after a mugging which leaves him badly beaten. In desperation, he joins a karate school, where he meets the mysterious Sensei (Alessandro Nivola) and secretive senior student Anna (Imogen Poots).

Self Defense is as subdued as Fight Club is flashy. Sensei is quiet and sadistic, the embodiment of brooding American masculinity.

Fight Club's Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt), in contrast, is a charismatic free spirit. Durden's over-glamorised character, by the way, is why Fight Club, while slickly entertaining, fails as satire.

Similarly, Fight Club's director David Fincher cannot help making the underground bare-knuckle contests at the heart of the story look sexy when they should be dreary. Durden intends for the slugfests to shock the Narrator (Edward Norton) out of his effete metropolitan existence and into embracing his true, primal manliness.

Defense's writer-director Riley Stearns, a relative newcomer to feature film-making, is much more clear-eyed. He sees brutality for what it is: the pose of a fragile being with nothing inside. Nivola's Sensei is as properly sociopathic and repugnant as he needs to be to make the film work as a warning about the self-deception at the heart of the tough-guy image.

Also newly arrived on streaming is another film about a soft guy who finds himself in a martial arts arena. Scott Pilgrim Vs The World (PG, 112 minutes, Netflix, 4 Stars) flopped at the box office on its release in 2010, but since then, word of mouth has earned it a rabid following.

The Art Of Self Defense stars Jesse Eisenberg (left) and Alessandro Nivola. PHOTO: HBO
Fight Club stars Brad Pitt (left) and Edward Norton. PHOTO: 20THCENTURYFOX
Scott Pilgrim Vs The World stars Michael Cera and Mary Elizabeth Winstead. PHOTO: UNITED INTERNATIONAL PICTURES

Director Edgar Wright recently marked its 10th anniversary with a watch party.

It stars Michael Cera, who, like Eisenberg, is the go-to guy when the story calls for "frail, vulnerable, with everyman looks". By coincidence, it also stars Mary Elizabeth Winstead as love interest Ramona Flowers. Winstead and Self Defense's maker, Stearns, were once married.

Cera's Pilgrim is a rock bassist who, during a battle-of-the-bands event that morphs into a videogame-style martial arts contest, has to defeat Ramona's evil ex-boyfriends.

The fights are stylised and weightless, acting as kinetic poetry and worlds apart from the bloody beatdowns of Self Defense or Fight Club.

Director Wright (zombie-comedy Shaun Of The Dead, 2004; cop comedy Hot Fuzz, 2007) embraces the film's comic book origins in its wildly imaginative visuals while injecting plenty of his brand of physical comedy.

Light as a feather, driven by a near-perfect soundtrack, this movie is still as fresh and innovative today as it was a decade ago.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 11, 2020, with the headline Soft guys who pack a mean punch. Subscribe