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Redbelt Print E-mail
Thursday, 25 September 2008
ImageDavid Mamet is a very busy writer, turning out plays and scripts by the carload, and despite holding firmly onto his own scripts, is willing to write the occasional screenplay for hire (“Hannibal,” for instance).  His own plays/screenplays are often intense and profane, with characters at the very edge of disaster.  But the conflicts are usually carried out vocally; it’s a bit of a surprise to find him the writer-director of “Redbelt,” about a courageous jiu-jitsu instructor who will not compromise his honor.  The movie includes several fights, some of which mix jiu-jitsu in the Brazilian style with other martial arts.

Not surprising, since the story partly deals with the phenomenon of Mixed Martial Arts.  Some years ago, various experts in these fields began to wonder who was the better fighter, a boxer or a karate expert?  Someone skilled in savate or a jiu-jitsu master?  From this question was born Mixed Martial Arts, bouts in which anything but eye-gouging goes.  These fighters have to be skilled in all the martial arts; lack of expertise in one will cost you the bout when you come up against someone who does know that one.
Mamet appears in several of the ancillary featurettes looking, somewhat unexpectedly, like a middle-aged boxing trainer, a genuine tough guy.  Some years ago, he was drawn to Brazilian-style jiu-jitsu, which led him to write this screenplay.  He’s a very interesting guy, both intelligent and relaxed.  In addition to the commentary track, on which he’s joined by Los Angeles sports figure Randy Couture (who has a role in the film), there’s a relatively brief question-and-answer session with him, videotaped at a theater.  He demonstrates a wide knowledge of and taste in movies—he likes well-made standard Hollywood films as well as more exotic foreign entries.  He sounds like a great guy to talk movies with over a long dinner. Chiwetel Ejiofar, familiar from “Inside Man,” “Children of Men” and “American Gangster,” among others, stars as Mike Terry, a quiet, centered teacher at a Los Angeles jiu-jitsu academy.  His classes are small and evidently select; troubled cop Joe Collins (Max Martini) is a prize pupil.  But the academy isn’t doing well; Mike’s Brazilian wife Sondra (Alice Braga) is frustrated that the income from the academy and her own business as a clothier can’t quiet keep their financial heads above water.  On a rainy night, a distraught Laura Black (Emily Mortimer), whom we later learn is a lawyer, accidentally discharges Joe’s gun, which he unwisely left on a counter, shattering the large front window.  Joe knows this could be very bad for Mike’s academy, not to mention Laura’s career—and his own—should a report be filed, so it “never happened.”  But Sondra has to find a way to pay for it.

Mike goes to a bar owned by Sondra’s brother Bruno (Rodrigo Santoro) hoping to get a quick loan, but the brothers are involved with shady-seeming fight promoter Marty Brown (Mamet regular, magician Ricky Jay), and can’t—or won’t—help him.  The big match will climax with another brother, Ricardo (John Machado), the reigning champion, pitted against a Japanese challenger.  Meanwhile, in the bar, movie star Chet Frank (Tim Allen) shows up unexpectedly, and unwillingly is drawn into a brutal fight.  But Mike steps in and without throwing a single blow, rescues Chet and disables the fighters.  Chet’s impressed.

Mike and Sondra are surprised to be invited to Chet’s home for dinner with him, his wife Zena (Rebecca Pidgeon) and some others, including producer Jerry Weiss (Joe Mantegna).  Zena is impressed by Sondra’s knowledge of fabrics, and Chet by Mike’s integrity.  Plus an element of his teaching methods: he will have combatants draw a marble from a bowl with three, two white, one black.  A black marble requires the fighter to be handicapped—an arm strapped down, a blindfold.

Mike is worried about Joe who quit his part-time job at the Brazilian brothers’ night club (they weren’t paying him), so when Chet sent a thank-you gift of an expensive watch, Mike gave it to Joe, suggesting he pawn it.  But this seemingly innocent act pulls Mike ever deeper into a tangle of corruption, betrayal and suicide.  For the first time in his life, just to make some money, he feels he has to enter a big Mixed Martial Arts competition, which is being staged by Marty Brown.  Mike is surprised and moved when he learns that the greatest living master of Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the holder of the only red belt in the discipline, will appear at the big match.

In his comments, Mamet insists that “Redbelt” is in the fight film genre—the master fighter, an outsider, is drawn against his will into the sordid real world.  Mamet knows his stuff, and has made a strong, serviceable drama in this vein.  It’s more thoughtful, more centered on spirituality, than other such dramas, but does follow the same path.  The simple, direct ending is unexpectedly moving.

Mamet is very sincere, very honest, about both the martial arts and moviemaking.  He’s probably been able to make a career in movies by following the elements of teaching, espoused in the film by Mike: “Everything has a force—embrace it or deflect it,” he says.  “Why oppose it?”  All matches, he says, have one rule: “Put the other guy down.”  Mike has been through a lot in his life—he’s a military veteran—but he’s also spent most of his life with people as honest as he is.  So he is a sitting duck for the casually corrupt people he encounters.  “Redbelt” turns very dark before the end, which is upbeat without including the melodramatic touch of seeing to it that all the bad people get their just deserts.  No one is punished.

Mamet has cast his movie very well, not only with regular Mamet players like Ricky Jay, Joe Mantegna and David Paymer.  Ejiofor, doing a perfect American accent, holds the film with the strength of his dedication to jiu-jitsu.  It isn’t part of his life, it has shaped and informed his life, and it seems to have shaped and informed Ejiofor’s strong performance.  Everyone else gives supporting performances to Ejiofor, and the entire cast, even the non-actors, works well.  Tim Allen’s a real surprise; this isn’t at all a comic role, he’s playing an actor who may be modeled on Bruce Willis.  He seems comfortable in the role, but from one of the featurettes, it’s obvious that this wasn’t easy for him.

In terms of a high-definition visual presentation, “Redbelt” is handsome and well-designed, but this is a story that centers on characters and their interactions, much more so than their surroundings.  The cinematography and lighting are adept enough that you can’t tell than many of the audience members at the big MMA match at the end are inflatable balloons.  The sound is sharp and detailed, but without being showy.  “Redbelt” is a solid presentation, but it probably plays about as well in standard definition as in Blu-ray’s high-def.

I suspect this movie will gradually accumulate a lot of devotees.  It didn’t do well in theaters (but probably made back its modest budget), but may do much better on home video.  It’s something of an action movie, but it’s very thoughtful, very focused on the idea that honor is something that is very difficult to win, and therefore very precious.

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