Review: Redbelt

September 6, 2008 at 11:36 am Leave a comment

I’m not a devoted follower of David Mamet.  I’m somewhat familiar with his television work, filmography, and I’m less familiar with his stage-work.  The only Mamet film I’d seen previously was Spartan, a movie which I loved.  When I heard he was working on a movie involving mixed martial arts, I became interested.  Mamet’s work, at least his film work, is generally considered mainstream, even if his films aren’t generally box-office hits.  So, my interest was piqued when I started considering all the possibilities that could come from an MMA movie written and directed by David Mamet.

Redbelt is the story of Mike Terry (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a martial arts instructor whose academy is slowly failing.  His wife, Sondra (Alice Braga), runs a separate business, but constantly finds herself siphoning money and resources from her business to help with Mike’s.  The academy does have a few loyal students, like police officer Joe Collins (Max Martini), and Snowflake (Jose Pablo Cantillo).  Things start to go really bad when a lawyer (Emily Mortimer) accidentally destroys the large window in front of the academy, leaving a gaping hole for anyone to enter into.

This sets off a chain of events that involves Officer Joe also falling on hard financial times and Mike and Sondra’s mounting debt, which eventually leads Mike to some Hollywood bigshots: actor Chet (Tim Allen) and producer Jerry (Joe Mantegna).  Things start to look up when these industry power players  offer Mike a producing role in Chet’s latest movie.  But things are not as they seem when a string of really bad luck forces Mike reconsider his new-found friendships and, most importantly, his own personal code of honor that he lives his life by.

Redbelt is not a martial arts movie in the traditional sense.  There’s not elaborate fight scenes that take place on rooftops or involve wires.  This film focuses less on the action and more on the reasons behind the action.  Mike Terry’s code of honor is strict and does not waver; it places service above self, and shuns any form of martial arts competition as it is not considered ‘pure’.  A competition is not a real combat situation since there are rules to follow and competition organizers can control all sorts of variables.  In a real life-or-death situation, nothing is controlled and there are no rules.  Against the protests of his wife, Mike refuses to partake in the growing popularity of MMA fights, and ignores all requests thrown his way, despite the large amount of money he could potentially earn.

After watching the film, I began likening it to the Rocky franchise.  Despite their occasional cheesiness and hammy acting, the Rocky films, to me, are more about why Rocky fights and less about the actual matches.  Boxing is like a physical manifestation of Rocky’s soul, his reason for living.  He doesn’t fight for fame or money, he fights because it’s in his nature to do so.  There’s nothing truly competitive or malevolent, he doesn’t want to kill anyone, he just has this desire to push his body to the limits.  In Redbelt, Mike’s way of thinking is similar: while he doesn’t compete, he feels that practicing martial arts makes him one with himself.  Even though his skills could hurt, and possibly kill, someone, he understands them and knows just how much force he needs to apply in order to ‘settle’ a situation.  Mike doesn’t want to hurt anyone, and he never picks a fight, but he isn’t afraid to put himself out there when he feels that violence may be the only way to solve a problem.

I don’t want to give away too much of the movie.  The plot gets a little complex toward the end, and eventually it’s as if the world had turned against Mike Terry.  The ending, while it may seem unsatisfying to some, it fits in completely with the message of the movie.  Mike’s motto is, “There’s always a way out.  Find it.”  In regards to combat, there’s always a way to escape from an opponents attack or hold, it’s just a matter of focusing and figuring out what the way is.  At the very end of the movie, when everyone had apparently turned their backs on him, Mike discovers his ‘way out’, a way to prove himself, uphold his code of honor, and win in the eyes of the people that matter to him the most.

The acting is great throughout.  Chiwetel Ejiofor once again proves he’s one of the best actors currently working, even though his name may not be familiar and his movies not that well-known.  He brings a stern and commanding presence, much like a sensei in a dojo.  All eyes are on him once he walks through the door.  Alice Braga plays his tired and concerned wife well.  It’s apparent, about halfway through the first act, that she married him against the wishes of others (especially her brother), but she loves him.  However, their struggling businesses and rising debt make her more agitated with him.  Max Martini, who is a regular on Mamet’s show The Unit, brings a quietness to his Officer Joe that I don’t generally see in his other characters.  Joe is a friend and loyal student of Mike’s, but his personal problems conflict with his love for the academy.  The other supporting cast is also fine.  Allen and Mantegna are perfectly suited to playing Hollywood types that are jaded and only in it for the money.  Also, MMA star Randy Couture shows up to play a fight commentator.  While not exactly a big role, he seems like he’s playing himself, and doesn’t really distract from the rest of the story.

David Mamet’s direction is also in fine form.  Like with Spartan the story starts from the first frame.  There’s no traditional setup, Mamet assumes you’re smart enough to figure out what’s going on without having to hold your hand.  Considering Mamet’s writing style, and the choices he makes as a director, this works.

Don’t go into this expecting a more adult Karate Kid or an updated version of Best of the Best.  This is a drama first, martial arts movie second and it requires some patience to get through.  It’s a film that is heavy on themes rather than action, and for those willing to be absorbed by this, the ending is a fitting conclusion. Redbelt is more about the consequence of how you live your life, rather that actually living it.  There are really only two fight scenes in this whole movie, and one of them is very brief.  However, the buildup to the final fight scene, and indeed the last scene, makes the fight seem like this great titanic struggle, and I found myself wanting to stand up and cheer for our hero.


(images from Yahoo!)


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